Accusing those of us who favor free-market solutions to replace the NCAA’s amateurism model of being liberal no doubt makes those who shout that feel better, but makes little sense to its intended targets. What we’re asserting is certainly a change to the status quo, but it’s got nothing to do with being a social justice warrior.
Don’t take my word for that, either. Here’s how Jonathan Chait, a left-of-center commentator at New York Magazine, defines the difference between the two groups:
If you are a philosophically committed libertarian, there is no need to explore this question any further. Individuals are morally entitled to earn what the market will bear, and any mechanism that infringes on the natural market distribution is inherently suspect. There’s not much need to know anything else about the situation. But if, like me, you’re not a laissez-faire absolutist but instead see markets as a tool that work well in some circumstances but not others, then you would need to know more about the specifics of the situation before deciding.
This may sound like a completely abstract discussion of a concrete problem with obvious human consequences. But it’s impossible to come up with a solution for reforming college athletics without first deciding what problem you want to solve. Is the problem artificial barriers are preventing people from capturing their market value? Or is the problem college athletes are being overworked and under-rewarded? Those two different conceptions of the problem lead to very different kinds of solutions.
The gender-equity issue is one immediate illustration. A scheme to pay college athletes on the basis of their market value will reward only male athletes. With very few exceptions, money-earning college sports are limited to football and men’s basketball. If market principles are your moral guidelines, then you have no problem with universities paying men’s basketball players but not women’s basketball players. Market principles would also dictate paying marching-band members and cheerleaders, who work hard and whose performances play an important role in drawing spectators. But if you think college athletes should be paid on the basis of the work they put in, then you’re going to pay all the athletes, not just the ones who participate in sports that have attracted profit-sustaining fan bases.
I’ll get back to discussing how badly Chait whiffs here in a minute, but first, let’s look at his proposed solution to the problem.
1. Lift the NBA one-and-done rule. Disproportionate attention has focused on the relatively small number of basketball players who are forced into college for a year, and have no intention of graduating, or using their education for any purpose other than maintaining technical eligibility. Most of the rage at this absurd state of affairs has focused on the NCAA. “If you look at the pros and the cons, college basketball is a big con,” Kylia Carter, the mother of Duke freshman Wendell Carter, tells William Rhoden.
But it wasn’t Duke or the NCAA that made her son spend a year on campus when he wanted to play professionally. The NBA has a rule barring players under 19 years old. The solution is for the NBA to open more professional paths for men’s basketball players who don’t want to attend college. That would end the one-and-done farce. Just this week, top high-school recruit Darius Bazley announced that, rather than spend a year playing college basketball, he would go straight to the NBA’s developmental league. “I’m aware that this might start a trend and that’s one of the reasons why I am doing this,” he explained. “Someone has to start the fire.”
Professional football can follow suit (and there is also some movement to do so). Keeping college sports as an avenue for athletes who also want to pursue a college education will be better for college sports. And it will also require that the NCAA create more protections so that players can actually fulfill this promise.
2. Universal stipends for college athletes. The U.S. Soccer case shows how difficult it would be for universities to justify a scheme that pays some athletes more than others. The payments should be shared equally, on the basis of hours of effort put in, not on how many people an athlete gets to watch them on television. Band members and cheerleaders should qualify, too.
3. Guaranteed five-year scholarships. The old four-year model envisioned sports as an extracurricular activity that could be performed on the side while a student studied. The demands of sports make this difficult for many. Every scholarship athlete should be guaranteed five years of free tuition and room and board during which they can have four years of athletic eligibility. The scholarship should only be revokable in cases of proven misconduct or academic failure. No pushing kids out of school because they failed to develop athletically.
4. Unions for college athletes. We have an institution that specializes in bargaining for humane work conditions and protection of vulnerable employees: unions. Northwestern football players tried to form a union, and were denied by the National Labor Relations Board. But some union-like organization could be formed in place of a formal one, and it would take on the role of collective bargaining. That would help ensure that as much of the surplus revenue generated by profitable college sports is shared by college students, rather than lavishly paid administrators and coaches.
Like what you’re hearing there? Hell, some of you need to look in the mirror, as number one seems to be the favorite choice of everyone defending the status quo, never mind that (1) it’s one thing over which the NCAA exercises zero control and (2) as even Chait admits, will affect a very small number of players.
But let’s go back to the point where Chait’s argument goes off the rails. [WARNING: Economics ahead.]
The larger conceptual problem is that the vast majority of college athletes do not have market value. That category includes virtually all female athletes, virtually all male athletes in sports other than football and basketball, and even many football and men’s basketball players. Indeed, they have negative market value. College athletes are recruited out of high school as prospects, and a huge percentage of those prospects never pan out. Once those players have shown that they aren’t going to develop as the coaches hoped, they become a liability, taking up a precious roster spot that could instead be given to an incoming recruit who has a chance to become a star.
Allow Andy Schwarz to retort.
In other words, you don’t get to go back in time and undo a deal that didn’t work out when you signed the kid out of high school. (If you could, boy, wouldn’t that be a great way to get rid of bad coaching contracts?) With this kind of labor, you bet on the come in the real world and you don’t get mulligans. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor there.)
Beyond that, if kids weren’t generating enough value to justify the current arrangement, the schools would have reduced what they’ve been offering to recruits. As they haven’t done so…
Further, as Schwarz notes, uncapping the labor market lifts all boats, because Title IX will require some matching effort be made for women student-athletes.
Beyond that, Chait completely ignores the potential third-party market for players’ NLIs. That’s a position he shares with Mark Emmert.
Advocates of the Olympic model believe allowing players to receive above-board deals and vetting agents like the NBA and NFL would solve some of these issue, as the economy for elite basketball players is there whether the NCAA allows it or not.
“I think one of the things that this recent scandal in college basketball has shown us is that there is money out there to give to the athletes that doesn’t hurt the NCAA or the university economically,” said University of Houston professor Dr. Billy Hawkins, who has written extensively on the sociology of the NCAA.
Asked specifically about the Olympic model this week, Emmert said the NCAA will have to decide what the organization seeks to be.
Emmert said the fundamental principle is “whether or not we want to have college sports as it exists today — that’s student-athletes playing student-athletes — or whether we want to move toward a model where these are employees that are compensated, whether directly or indirectly, for their performances.”
Which leads to a puzzling accusation by Chait:
The fixation with markets as the solution to college sports has always been strange. Sports in general have never operated along purely market principles, even at the professional level. (Only professional sports can deny a person the right to work in the city of their choice simply because a firm in another city has drafted the exclusive right to make them go live and work there.) College sports are especially un-conducive to market principles. They didn’t evolve to fill a market need but a social one, and the vast majority of its participants do not serve any capitalistic function. Unless you believe the expansion of market forces is everywhere and always a virtuous development, the proper response to the encroachment of market dynamics into college sports is to push back.
Hmmm… maybe that explains why Rutgers is a proud member of the Big Ten these days. Thus endeth the lesson.