Would paying the athletes harm college sports? That is the wrong question

Would paying the athletes harm college sports? I don’t know, but this is the wrong question.

Many of my friends are discussing Taylor Branch’s fantastic Atlantic piece indicting the NCAA. David Brooks offers a sentimental defense of the amateur ideal today.

I wouldn’t compare college sports to a plantation, as Branch and his sources occasionally do. Yet it’s clear that the NCAA is a cartel that presents self-serving rationalizations for policies that prevent young athletes from being paid what the market will bear for the services they render.

And in many concrete circumstances, the result is hypocritical, unfair, and exploitative. What justification is there for preventing a young person from selling his own autographed jersey or from profiting from his likeness in a video game? What justification is there for policies that prevent young athletes from employing agents to negotiate with professional teams before deciding whether to return senior year? It would be one thing if such rules were determined through a legitimate collective bargaining mechanism. They are not. They are arbitrarily determined by the NCAA to advance the interests of colleges, coaches, television sponsors, fans, and its other stakeholders.

Many people claim that college sports works better under this system than it would under a system in which the stars are openly paid. They note that paying college athletes raises difficult logistical questions: Who would be eligible for workers compensation? Would there be efforts to equalize pay across sports and between men and women? Does the economic value of a full scholarship exceed a fair market wage? Is the answer to this question different for men’s football or women’s soccer?

I don’t know the answers here. I do know that these are the wrong questions. Even if rules promoting amateur competition make things simpler, even if restrictions on player compensation have clear social benefits, we don’t generally accept such arguments to constrain people’s ability to negotiate the terms of their employment.

Suppose I could present convincing analysis that American public health would be enhanced by a national ceiling on nurses’ pay. Maybe I could even argue that dampening the commercial pressures would enhance important non-market values to save lives and improve public health. Nobody would regard these findings as providing a legal sanction or a policy justification for allowing hospitals to establish some national organization that fined nurses who accepted higher pay or gifts from a University of Chicago Medical Center booster. We would see it for what it was.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

29 thoughts on “Would paying the athletes harm college sports? That is the wrong question”

  1. The justification for not allowing college athletes to sell their jerseys or otherwise profit from their status is that if they could, it would create a de facto professional sports league consisting of a small group of large sports programs. An athlete at, say, Texas or Ohio State would find that there were people (i.e. boosters) willing to buy their jerseys in bulk for above-market rates. Athletes at programs outside the top programs would find no such windfall, or perhaps a much smaller one. Yes, college sports is already divided into haves and have-nots, particularly in football, but allowing athletes to profit would blow apart any notion of fair play and further divide college sports into quasi-pro teams and everyone else. At least now a Boise State can play themselves into the national championship conversation, and Butler can make the Final Four.

    I recognize that there’s some naivete and nostalgia for a lost time in the above comment, and the recent circus of schools jumping conferences in search of dollars makes a mockery of any notion of big-time college athletics as something practiced by student-athletes, but I’m not ready to give up on the notion that there’s something in college sports that’s still worth saving.

  2. As a graduate of a football factory that has become a much stronger academic institution over the past 20 years due to the farsighted leadership of several politicians, I say that there is nothing in big-time college sports worth saving. The tail is not only wagging the dog (hint, hint) but is shaking it nearly to death, on campus and off. The off-campus influence is particularly malign. And this doesn’t apply only to the usual suspects in the South, Great Plains, and Midwest. I spent a week this summer at the #1 Public University(TM) in this country, staying in a Faculty Club not too far from a ridiculously expensive stadium renovation. Said stadium will be filled 6-7 times per year with paying customers. The rest of the time it will sit there waiting for the Big Quake. This is nuts. Period.

  3. EMRVentures:
    Exactly what is it in varsity college sports that is worth saving? Intramural sports, sure. They’re great! Club sports, okay. I have no problem with them, at least the way they’re done now. But varsity sports? If you have a defense for it, let’s see it.

  4. Ebenezer:

    At bottom, I guess, it’s because I like it, as do millions of others. As do the hundreds of thousands of participants in college sports who don’t happen to play for a bigtime football factory. I believe that universities would lose something, in the sense of their being “universal”, without offering intracollegiate competition for those who excel at it — athletics is too big a part of our culture for “universities” to ignore. I believe that the increased participation of women in sports at all levels over the past decades is a great accomplishment, but I don’t know that you can get that kind of cultural shift on simply a bottom-up basis — a top-down effect is also needed to draw in participants, and college athletics is the highest level of athletics in so many varsity sports. Club sports and intramurals don’t get that done.

    I suspect you will not find this satisfying, because this is probably an agree-to-disagree kind of issue. I tried to be clear above that I recognize the rot in too much of college athletics, and that my view contains a large dose of pollyanna and nostalgia. I, like I suspect you, would be just as happy to see bigtime college football fall into the sea. I think the recent nonsense with conference realignment is a disgrace to every university involved. No athlete on a non-revenue sport should have to have their travel and time commitments increased because the football team can make money by flying from Syracuse to Miami, or from Colorado to the West Coast. College presidents who impose that on athletes deserve to be fired. I think that the John Calipari one-and-done show at Kentucky is a disgrace to any institution of higher learning.

    Still, I’m glad that many, many athletes who are not part of the handful of football or basketball players at a sports factory have the opportunity to pursue their sport in college, and that the majority of colleges are better for it.

  5. While I favor paying athletes, for the reasons Harold cites, I think we should recognize that there are many things universities can do to improve treatment of athletes even without that.

    To start with, let’s eliminate the one-year scholarship in favor of a full five year grant. (Five to allow for the time consumed by major sports.) There is no reason an athlete who performs satisfactorily academically and pputs forth full effort on the field should lose his scholarshp because he turns out not to be better than enough other players. No one can talk honestly about “student-athletes” who is ready to take a way a scholarship for this reason.

    And then let’s recognize that lots of good athletes simply cannot keep up academically without a lot of help. Spend some of that coaching salary on tutors, summer remedial programs, whatever. If you’re serious about “give the guy a chance,” then give him a real chance.

    No doubt there are other things that could be done. Treating the players the way they are too often treated, while coaches get seven-figure salaries, is a disgrace.

  6. EMRVentures,

    Why is it only the “students” who are expected to sacrifice? College coaches are vastly better compensated in comparison to academics at their institutions and they are also allowed to take unlimited money from outside business like sports equipment manufactures and boosters. Why not cap the compensation for coaches at their university salaries? You imply that a university has a stronger claim to market products based, for example, on the likeness of its star players than does the player himself? Why shouldn’t student athletes get money from boosters or from selling their uniforms?

    A related question: You imply that it would be unfair to allow “student athletes” at some (more popular) institutions receive money from, for example, selling their uniforms because it would somehow make them “professionals” and would be unfair to smaller schools or to “student athletes” at smaller schools. Yet, isn’t this exactly who is happening right now except that it’s the coaches and universities with the most popular teams that reap the benefits? It seems to me that if it’s unfair (for the reasons you give) for students to profit then it is surely just as wrong for the coaches and institutions with popular teams to be able to profit from the team’s popularity.

    Basically, I’m not seeing an actual reasoned justification for why the “student athletes” (and only them) should work for nothing in the pro leagues’ farm teams when nobody else is expected to. Universities are running what are essentially semi-professional sports franchises that are forced to pay market-based compensation to everybody except the athletes who perform for the entertainment of the fans. Because of a collusive situation where the professional teams and the trade association of the schools conspire to force any player who wants to become a “professional” athlete to “donate” his or her services to the system of farm teams for a period of years as a precondition to applying for a job with a professional team. How is this morally or ethically acceptable to you?

  7. Turn the big time college sports into proper minor leagues. Adopt the promotion and relegation system that European soccer leagues use. Privatize the teams and walk away. Get back to education.

  8. I see it as a moral issue. As more and more studies are coming out about the dangers of playing football (brain damage, etc.), it seems morally repugnant to me to profit on the backs of athletes who are inflicting permanent injuries on themselves.

    Mitch Guthman: I agree. I think under the present system (and perhaps other one’s as well) that the coaches’ avenues of compensation should be held to the same standards as the players.

  9. Mitch Guthman:

    I’m not trying to say everything, or even anything, is right about the bigtime college sports situation. It’s not. College football is a sump. I’m just saying that the justification that can be offered — accept it or not — for limiting college athletes’ ability to earn money from their status is that allowing them to do so would turn college football into an even bigger semi-pro farce than it already is. If you want the current situation, where the sports tail wags the college dog at 50 or so universities, to get worse, let them sell jerseys. If you want it to get better … well, I admit I don’t have a solution. As far as college football goes, I’d be just as happy to see it disappear.

    As far as the “moral and ethical” issue of not paying players, I have some sympathy for bigtime college football players as exploited laborers, but not a great deal. Many people in many professions spend time early in their lives working for less than their market value in the hopes of payoff later, and do it far past the ages of 18-21. Receiving a free education and free room and board while living the life of a BMOC on a college campus is a far smaller sacrifice than many, many people make in the course of getting, or trying to get, where they want to go in life.

  10. There is a core design defect, evolved into existence over a century, in the system for this country’s big-time college sports. (That essentially means the top divisions of football and men’s basketball, with some other gray area.) They are squarely built around the premise that they are college extra-curricular activities involving amateur athletes. Objectively, they are big-money professional sports, from which many adults make good-to-spectacular livings. Most of the athletes are paid, in a peculiar way but fairly well, often $40 thousand or more for a demanding but still part-time college job. A few of the best are highly underpaid, and thus exploited, as compared to their current market value. The system is constantly adjusted, and other adjustments are fairly debatable, but the deep-seated design flaw cannot be papered over or tweaked away without uprooting the system. Greater cash payments (or backdoor bennies) to some prominent athletes is a total non-starter; it cannot be squared with the amateurism myth which is baked into the structure. The least drastic fundamental fix would be substantial minor leagues, as in baseball and hockey, to provide an alternate route to the big leagues. Even that, however, is too drastically upsetting to vested economic interests to be considered any time soon. In the short-to-medium run, the problems are insoluble; learn to live with the contradictions. This University of Wisconsin sports fan has; Go Badgers.

  11. EMRVentures:
    As you suspected, I disagree with you. But you’re a pleasure to disagree with. I think you made the case about as well as it could be made. Of course, the case for turning college football into a bigger farce is that it would destroy college football as it is. College football–based in regionalism–cannot survive if it looses its patina of authenticity and becomes a mere minor league sport.
    Which, perhaps, is what we both want.

  12. EMRVentures:

    As I see it, your analysis continues to be that the student athletes (and only student athletes) must work for free if the universities are to be able to continue to put on their profitable entertainments. You seem to be saying that while you don’t like the present system, to allow students to receive anything more would somehow significantly compromise what I take to be the “integrity” of college sports. I just can’t see it. Would it really be so bad if schools had to pay for insurance and benefits for their athletes? How much worse would it really be if the student athletes themselves were able to sell their replica uniforms as the schools do now? Or if they were sponsored by businesses as the universities are now? Or if they could raise funds from boosters (either individually or collectively) so that the student athletes could live better during their forced apprenticeship? Everybody else is taking with both hand in this system, why exactly would it get worse if the performers got some more money, too?

    And that’s really what you’re justifying here. You say that lots of young people have to make this kind of sacrifice for career advancement but I don’t think that’s correct. This is nothing like an apprenticeship. I can’t think of any other profession or job where the prospective employers are able to demand that you work for a period of years in their “farm system” with being paid. Young people who want to be a professional baseball players just go to the minor leagues (if they’re qualified). What’s so special about college football? (I would also note another incongruity in that nothing else works that way, even in the college athletics system. Coaches and administrators, for example, aren’t required to spend their first four years working for free—-and neither would the “student athletes” were it not for the cozy arrangement between the NFL and the schools.

  13. Team-sport athletes leaving high school who have the potential for lucrative big-league careers should absolutely have the option of turning pro immediately, and developing in minor or junior leagues. Baseball, hockey and soccer players have that option. Football players don’t, and basketball players do so only to a limited extent. That is much of the problem. The honest solution is to create the needed minor leagues. Cash payment to the relative few college football and basketball players who are already high-profile stars, while maintaining the amateur myth, is a bad idea. So is backdoor remuneration such as memorabilia sales; the abuse would be staggering. Turning those players into explicitly professional college-employed sports entertainers is at least as bad. Keep your eye on Title 9; nearly all the highest profile college athletes are male. It is a bad system now, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be made worse.

  14. My god but Brooks is a cretin. He ends that, from where he sits, swapping nostalgic kisses with George Will for that sweet bygone era before women voted, before civil rights, there was something … The amateur ideal … Worth preserving. Ok, how about we pay the athletes and require all the boosters and coaches to do their bit for free, thus preserving the amateur ideal. Wait, where is everybody going. …. I thought the ideals of amateurism were important!

  15. The issue isn’t the NCAA, it is the NFL. This isn’t really a problem with the other pro sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey. The reason? There is a minor league. A talented baseball or hockey player need not go to college to play professionally. They can play in the minors or, like basketball, get drafted right out of high school. Not so with football. The NFL doesn’t want to spend the money for a minor league and the nature of the sport requires development time of young men post high school. Thus the NCAA is stuck in the middle making the system work for all sports when the nature of the NFL has doomed college football amateurism to failure.

  16. Benny Lava: I agree with you on the NFL side, and much the same applies to the NBA. On the college side, the powers that be like the absence of minor leagues just fine; it channels better athletes to them, helping to sell tickets and TV contracts. The college sports industry (of which the NCAA is only a part) would be happy with the old rule under which the NFL and NBA wouldn’t take anyone within four years of high school, if they could get away with it. The pros and the college industry like to say that they are each independent operators who have no agreement with each other on these matters. In fact, however, these things play out slowly in public, and everyone knows on which side everyone’s bread is buttered. The status quo is effectively an agreement between the pros and and the college industry.

  17. I agree: professionalism is abhorrent.

    All student-athletes should be real students, carrying full academic loads and given no more than a full scholarship.

    And of course all teacher-coaches should be real teachers, with regular faculty appointments and paid at no higher rate than the top decile of the rest of the faculty.

  18. “And of course all teacher-coaches should be real teachers, with regular faculty appointments and paid at no higher rate than the top decile of the rest of the faculty.”

    With tenure after 5-6 years? Sounds good to me.

  19. Indeed. But this would go a long way toward solving all the problems associated with the hypertrophy of big time athletic budgets. They are doing it for the love of the game, and their players. Right?

  20. Mark and KLG: The “pay coaches like faculty” idea would have been an excellent idea if farsighted educators had imposed it several decades ago. In today’s RBC, it is marginalized into snark. Big-time college sports is a huge industry with great vested-interest momentum and severe paradoxes. The chances of significant improvement any time soon are minimal; the best we can realistically hope for is not to make it worse.

  21. “…the best we can realistically hope for is not to make it worse.”

    Oh, I dunno, the legal team that got more than a billion from Swiss banks over unclaimed Jewish assets may be able to do a lot more than just not make it worse. They may manage to blow up the cartel entirely. Which would be a fine how-do-you-do.

  22. Doug: Although reforming college sports is a meritorious cause, the one you reference is clearly on a higher plane. And even so, it has been a decades-long slog to obtain remedies. In the near to mid-term, say a generation, I stand by my pessimistic analysis.

  23. The university presidents could bust up the NCAA if they really wanted to. That would be a good thing if you ask me. Realistically, I have no problem with a two tiered situation in the major sports, with the pro-training ground schools paying their players and the rest being actual college teams. We now have a three tiered arrangement, division 1, 2 and 3, except that too many schools with grandiose ideas but little actual propsect insist on playing division 1 and being cannon fodder for the truly competitive schools. When I am asked for advice about talented young athletes, I generally tell them that if their real goal is to get an education, go to a division 3 school where there is proper prospective about the roll of athletics and they can actually enjoy their sport. At a division 1 school, the sport is their full time job. For baseball players good enough to be drafted out of high school, the best advice for most is to sign and go to the minor leagues and take care of their education later.

    As for coaches pay, who can blame them for getting what they can? Their inflated salaries are completely the responsibility of the university presidents, encouraged by the alumni.

    Big time college sports remind me of strip clubs where everyone (customers, employees and independent contractors) is exploited. If the NCAA and the other deficiencies discussed here weren’t bad enough, does it bother anyone that these “amateur contests” are the subject of massive wagering each week, most of it handled illegally by organized crime families?

  24. Right on, Redwave72, with a couple of comments. The university presidents could possibly bust up the NCAA (if they really wanted to) but then again they might be overruled by even higher authorities. These being mostly public schools, those are governors and legislators. Whoever one sees as the relevant powers that be, the college sports industry is so big and so popular that the chance of such an overturning within the next generation is negligible. As to baseball players, I would probably recommend college for a player with enough academic aptitude and interest to make that a viable choice. However, the mere existence of the go-pro option removes from college baseball most of the worst recruiting problems of basketball and football. But, not by chance, college baseball is much smaller industry than those other two, and therein lies the rub.

  25. While we’re having pipe dreams, there’s another group that could force reform (for about 15 minutes, before all its members disappeared or had epiphanies): accreditors. There’s a good argument to be made (with strong evidence) that a bigtime sports program corrupts the regular academic side as well.

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