When liberals collide: is there a case for paying student-athletes?

Jonathan Chait can’t figure out how Matthew Yglesias’ argument for paying college athletes makes sense.

… I’ve never been clear on exactly what Yglesias is proposing. Is he saying that only athletes in revenue-generating sports should be paid? Or is he saying that all college athletes should be paid? If it’s the latter — and Yglesias focuses his argument entirely on the merits of paying student-athletes at revenue-generating sports — I don’t know what his reason is. The women’s cross country team at Connecticut works just as hard as the men’s basketball team. The difference between the two are:

1) The men’s basketball team gets to play on television and be famous

2) The proceeds from the television contract subsidize sports like women’s cross country, and

3) The men’s basketball players have a higher chance to become professional athletes

I’m not sure what about this situation suggests that the men’s basketball players deserve to be paid by UConn but the women’s cross country runners don’t. So who would get paid here? All college athletes?

Here’s the thing… well, actually two things.  First, with regard to compensation for all, Chait’s “works just as hard” point is irrelevant.  If our society valued hard work regardless of the context, every coal miner in West Virginia would make more money than Paris Hilton.  They don’t, obviously.  It’s tautological, but we value the revenue producing sports for what they are, not for how hard the kids work.

But he’s on firmer ground when he rips Yglesias for not recognizing that, whatever its warts, there are some unique characteristics about college athletics that don’t make the case for paying players a (forgive me)  slam dunk.

… First of all, there’s no “mandatory amateurism.” There’s nothing stopping anybody from starting a football or basketball minor league that attracts talented 18 year olds, paying its players, and then having some of those players go on to make greater sums in the NFL or the NBA. Why doesn’t such a league exist? Because there’s no demand for it. You have the NBA developmental league, but that league is subsidized by the pros. This suggests Yglesias’s exploitation model is pretty seriously flawed. During the beginning of the NCAA tournament, he wrote, “Professional basketball players are way better at basketball. Just saying.”

He’s right. And yet college basketball is highly popular. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because people like watching games between college students, even if they understand that some of those students are just looking for  a pathway to professional basketball. They do not like watching an NBA training league. Now, everybody understands that the reality often falls short of the ideal. I’m very much in favor of reforms like ending freshman eligibility and so on. Yglesias seems far more interested in destroying college athletics than in thinking about what to change it into, or whether that thing could even survive.

A second, and more persistent, flaw in Yglesias’s critique is the problem of profit. He’s been making this argument for years, and he never deals with the absence of profit. A movie studio forming a cartel to underpay its workforce and thus enjoy greater profits is different than a university that does not have any profit. Yglesias might have some explanation for why this difference doesn’t matter, but to ignore it altogether is not really a persuasive approach.

To some extent, college athletics as a business model has been warped as a result of the free ride the NBA and the NFL gets on its back.  But another problem is that colleges and their athletic departments aren’t operated like traditional for-profit businesses.  The combination of the two has led to a tension that’s illustrated in the NCAA’s flailing about in defending its amateurism standard.  The problem is that before we can decide if there’s a happy medium in there somewhere, as Chait hopes, it would help to find some people who have a clue about how to get to that point.  I can’t say there’s anything in Mark Emmert’s track record that gives me much cause for optimism there for now.


Filed under College Football, It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

38 responses to “When liberals collide: is there a case for paying student-athletes?

  1. heyberto

    Senator, you need to be in charge of making all arguments on the internet. At the risk of looking like a brown-noser, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone analyze break these various arguments down so succinctly, and just weave through all the B.S. I guess that’s why I’m such a fan of this blog. Kudos to you sir, for bringing sanity to the discussion. I just wish your point of view would make its way higher.

  2. David

    Let me also add kudos of a different sort. Senator, whether you frequent The New Republic, or were just referred to the Chait article, I’d like to thank you for running a by-and-large politics-free zone. Anymore, you can’t go to ANY site and read an article without the author devolving into some kind of political tangent or another. Thanks for creating a “safe space”.

  3. SC Dawg

    The two biggest stories of the offseason don’t mix. The people who complain about oversigning can’t support paying players. If you think Nick Saban is ruthless about the way he creates his roster now, just wait and see what happens if those players are supposed to make $100k. Not only is their employment a day to day risk, their education would be non-existent.

      • SC Dawg

        I honestly believe the NCAA cares about education. I just think they would like to keep the status quo so they can have their cake and eat it too. However, if their hand was forced they would choose to move towards education rather than pay for play. I also don’t believe if minor leagues were created for the NBA and NFL that college fball and bball would suffer to the point of irrelevance. One thing to mention about standard of entertainment is that people who watch pro sports expect to see highest quality atheletes (one of the many reasons MLS is what it is) and people who watch college sports don’t come with the expectation to see the best (if they did then why did college bball thrive when the NBA allowed high schoolers, Jay Bilas makes a strong argument that the quality of play was better during that time).

        • gastr1

          You’re right, as is the claim that minor leagues are unpopular: bottom line is that people care about team sports for the allegiances. And when it’s an alma mater that is seen to represent an entire state and hordes of graduates over scores of years, that’s a hell of lot of allegiances.

          The NCAA will NEVER pay the players. They may loosen up on letting them earn a little jack off their names, but they will never pay them, because they don’t have to and they (rightly) don’t think it would make the corruption go away. And the NFL and NBA will NEVER get more serious about minor leagues, because they don’t have to and they (rightly) don’t think it would make the corruption go away.

          College sports fans can get their panties in a wad all they want about any number of issues, most of which (corruption, polls, and bowls) have gone on for years and years and years and years. The day ANY of this stuff will change is the day the conferences and/or the bowls get stiffed on gate receipts, sponsorships, and tv contracts. Until then, Ride ’em, cowboy, ’cause anything else is just pissing in the wind.

  4. Irishdawg

    ” every coal miner in West Virginia would make more money than Paris Hilton. ”

    I’ll gladly pay to drop Paris Hilton down a coal mine.

  5. Wonderful-Ohio-on-the-Gulf Dog

    I’m suspicious of the motives behind those seeking to “reform” college sports. I suspect most “reform” advocates attended schools that, over the last five decades or so, sport miserably losing records in football and basketball, at least against nationally-competitive competition.

    College football once was the sole province of elite northeastern schools. Methinks many effete snobs want to take us back there.

  6. Wonderful-Ohio-on-the-Gulf Dog

    And what’s this with Nadar’s proposal to eliminate not only athletic scholarships, but academically-based ones as well? Only financial need would be considered.

    So, no one should get help going to college as a consequence of merit (academic, athletic, or otherwise) over which the individual exercises some modicum of control, but rather as a consequence of financial need over which the individual has virtually no control?

  7. shane#1

    If liberals collide in a forest and there’s no one there to hear them, do they still make a sound?

  8. JaxDawg

    Too bad that when liberals collide they don’t destroy each other, like 2 buses colliding at 100 mph.

    • shane#1

      But, but, but, what about fairness?

    • Dog in Fla

      Just like the sound of two buses colliding in the Volkhovsky Forest

      “That’s why am I picking on potential Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and propaganda blogger Andrew Breitbart. To me, they represent the tri-fecta of backwardness that we must actively avoid among our political and cultural leadership if we want to stay focused on the future. These individuals thrive on the uncertainty of today’s political environment–presenting simple but false governing solutions along with tabloid fodder distractions— while undermining the society that they claim to seek. These actions actually place them outside of the American political spectrum. They are not so much conservatives as they are Soviets–the ideologically driven, corrupt regime that dominated eastern Europe for most of the last century.”


    • Macallanlover

      Too bad when liberals live they take everyone down with them. At least in the forest they can only injure their beloved trees.

      • Vinings Dog

        I would pay money to know what Dog In Florida does for a living. I am betting he is in grad school down there…..somewhere.

        • Macallanlover

          Or a prof somewhere. But schools/campuses are always a good place to look for those hiding from the realities of life, certainly not limited to that environment but a lot theorists with no practical experience hang there. Interesting how universities and mass media companies, two places where the twisting of facts can be used to influence large groups of trusting people, are where we find the most outspoken Leftists. No coincidence there Comrade.

          • Dog in Fla

            I’m Ron Jeremy, bitches! And I’m working undercover at Fox News on the super-hot blonde airhead chicks there.

    • Interesting . . . I wonder which one of you fellas is gonna be the first to whine about how you wish the Senator would keep politics off this site the next time he makes even a remote reference to a political figure on here.

      • Interesting . . . I wonder which one of you fellas is gonna be the first to whine about how you wish the Senator would keep politics off this site the next time he makes even a remote sarcastic reference to a conservative political figure on here.


  9. David

    Nevermind. Ryan-Rubio 2012!

    • Dog in Fla

      That’s the ticket.

      Newt could be Secretary of Fatherland Security


      with these two as his Undersecretary and secretary

      • Macallanlover

        In your dreams we could have a person as informed, and dedicated to the survival of this country as Newt is. While probably too enlightened to be elected by such an ignorant voting group, he is the one person strong/smart enough to save us, imo. And yes, that means I think we fall apart as a nation. No use debating that, we will never agree, but I am sad we will squander our best chance to lead us from the brink.

        With all other candidates, Dims or Republicans, I think we collapse and end up with some hybrid. Way too polarized at this point (part of the strategy, I understand) to work through the issues, especially the haters that divided us all. That means the Leftists have won, but we all lose because of that. If that brings you pleasure, revel in it; I will find a way to still be standing, it will just be very different for everyone.

  10. malcolmkass

    I am going to go ahead and ignore the politically driven posts. All of you make everything worse.

    Just make scholarships 4 years agreements (with exceptions, like legal issues, of course) and up the penalities if a staff gets caught. Then the player compensation is more than enough, for the school is acquiring all the economic risk. Its not like the school can bill a 5 star recruit if he doesn’t pan out athletically, why should the same player get extra compensation for doing well? Since nearly everybody is risk adverse, it seems to be a pretty simply solution for the “fairness” argument. To solve the “protecting amatuerism” argument, just up the penalities and oversight. Granted, additional oversight is costly, but rarely is anything cheap that works. As a chemical engineer, I am only all too aware of this.