The NCAA generates billions of dollars in revenue. The student-athletes who play basketball and football are largely responsible for all that cash. However, since the NCAA regards all student-athletes as amateurs, these athletes do not share in any of the money. This is why the NCAA is being sued in federal court over anti-trust claims.
Many years ago I was an amateur student-athlete. I got a college degree, traveled the country, and played basketball in front of thousands. The school paid for my tuition, room, board, books and food. For college athletes like me, ones who have no shot at going pro, a college scholarship is a great deal.
Everything was free, and I was still considered an amateur. I was also considered a student-athlete. I used to dream of playing basketball in the NCAA tournament. I seldom, if ever, dreamed of going to class. In fact I often day dreamed of basketball stardom while in class!
I was recently told a funny anecdote by a former student-athlete. This friend of mine played football in college. One semester he needed to take a class that was required for his major. The problem was the class met during afternoon practices. He went to his coach to discuss showing up late two days a week so he could take this class. “Change your major,” was the reply of his coach.
Clearly the phrase student-athlete does not aptly describe all college athletes. Some take their education seriously and simply use their athletic scholarship as a tool to get a free degree. To others who are on campus to prepare for the professional ranks, classes are merely a nuisance.
Regardless, all are considered amateurs. For the future pro athletes, the ones that drive up TV ratings and sell tickets and jerseys, there is no opportunity for them to earn money from their talents while in college. They must wait until they leave college and join a professional sports league.
While professional sports in America may have collective bargaining, unions and occasional Congressional oversight, they do adhere to free market ideas far better than college sports. Free markets are not widely praised at tax payer funded universities. Academia is far more friendly to the idea of amateurism. Think about the odd ball ways in which colleges run things. Tenured professors don’t get fired no matter how bad they are and student-athletes don’t get paid no matter how good they are.
Why is it that administrators, athletic directors and coaches who draw huge salaries don’t want to share any of the money with the players who generate it? Do you smell the odor of hypocrisy?
The key is who is the amateur, who is the professional, and who is the “free agent.” Mark Emmert is the President of the non-profit NCAA and makes $1.6 million a year. Many high profile athletic directors and coaches make well over a million a year. These people are considered professionals and are thus allowed to be paid their free market salaries. To the NCAA, the student-athlete is an amateur. If he were to be offered the freedom to be paid for his talents, he’d become a dreaded “free agent.”
But the concept of “free agency” should not be a pejorative. It is one we engage in all the time. Imagine if, after buying a certain brand of shaving cream or cereal, you were forced to continue buying that particular brand for years. If so, the company would have you locked in as a buyer of their product. They might become lazy and not work for your business. You might want to try another cereal. Another company might be working harder to create better cereal. Regardless, you wouldn’t be able to buy any other brand. Silly, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you rather be a “free agent” cereal buyer? I would.
The NCAA’s model relies on a rejection of “free agency” and clings to amateurism for all athletes. No salaries or extra benefits or “pay for play” as they call it, is allowed. Thus the NCAA is accused of being a trust. The only way a trust or monopoly or cartel can exist is through force, or the threat of it. The force the NCAA uses is eligibility. If an athlete takes money or accepts any extra benefit he risks losing his eligibility to play.
Often times the trust or monopoly relies on government force, such as tax breaks, subsidies and licensing. Thus the answer to the current conundrum of the NCAA in regards to amateurism lies not in the Federal courts, or in Congressional oversight, or the National Labor Relations Board, or Title 9, or in any other government fix. The answer is so obvious. It’s on the court and on the field. Sports is the best example of free markets where the better teams and better athletes rise to the top. This process of imitating a free market raises the level of play across the board.
In the economy where unfettered competition is allowed, new entrants into the field will come up with new ways to better serve the consumer. These companies could grab market share from the trust/monopoly through the voluntary choices of the consumer. The problem is not big business, it is big government. Anti-trust efforts would yield far better results by focusing on the biggest trust/monopoly of all – government.
As for who would pay the players or how much, I don’t think that is key the issue. Whether the NCAA pays the players, or the conferences, schools, or someone else is secondary to the key issue: the NCAA should not demand no one pay them. If a company that makes jerseys, or a video game maker wants to pay a particular athlete, fine. If schools want to pay their players, let them. If some schools refuse to pay their players, fine. Let the free market sort it out. There is already a huge gulf between Kentucky basketball and Yale basketball, between Alabama football and Georgetown football. Adding more money to the mix won’t change this.
Let’s say an athlete sets up a table at the student union building one day. For a few hours he signs autographs for other students and makes a couple hundred bucks. He then uses that money to buy a plane ticket so he can go home to see his family at Christmas. Does anyone really think this is a bad thing? Should the NCAA disqualify that athlete from playing? What if he does the same thing, but this time at a local restaurant. The athlete still charges for the autographs, but the owner also pays him a bit for increasing traffic into his restaurant. I still don’t see a problem. Do you? Apparently the NCAA does.
Perhaps this is why the NCAA is on the defensive. I doubt the NCAA will go away any time soon. I think we’ll see more reforms nibbling at the edges. The University of Southern California just announced they are going to start offering four year scholarships instead of the traditional one year renewable. Others have proposed paying for the athletes true cost of attendance rather than just tuition, room and board. If Congress gets more involved there will be even more reforms.
If the NCAA wins the anti-trust case, I wonder if and when schools will decide to leave. Could we see private schools leave the NCAA and start their own association? There’d be a lot of money at stake. College football fans want to see their teams play. There is no marquee trophy or event in college football like the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball. If schools were to leave the NCAA I think they would miss basketball’s March Madness far more than any BCS type of arrangement football has.
And what if the NCAA loses their anti-trust case and players are now free to be paid. Some schools will start paying their athletes while others might simply decide to drop athletics; it’s their school, their choice. Other schools will no doubt want to stick with the amateur model. Will these schools lose a lot of games? Probably, but lots of schools lose games on a regular basis. Not everyone can be Kentucky basketball or Alabama football. And the thing to keep in mind is, Alabama football is not going away. Nor is Kentucky basketball. Whether those athletes are paid or not, their fans will still show up to watch.