Recent comments made by Big 12 commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, left me shaking my head.  Bowlsby was giving his annual state of the league address.  His comments about cheating got most of the headlines but the following lines caught my attention.

“It is hard to justify paying student-athletes in football and men’s basketball and not recognizing the significant effort that swimmers and wrestlers and lacrosse players and track athletes all put in.  Football and basketball players don’t work any harder than anybody else; they just happen to have the blessing of an adoring public who is willing to pay for the tickets and willing to buy the products on television that come with the high visibility.

“We have both a legal obligation and a moral obligation to do for female student-athletes and male Olympic sports athletes just exactly what we do for football and basketball student-athletes.  I don’t think it’s even debatable.”

These comments, which on the surface sound reasonable and laudable, are really silly once a bit of thought is applied.  What Bowlsby is suffering from is an attachment to egalitarianism.  He thinks all athletes should be equal.  But sports is the antithesis of egalitarianism.  In sports we keep score, and the score usually tells us who’s better.  Not all athletes are equal.  To the victor goes the spoils, or in athletics, the championships, the crowds, the adulation, the money.

Egalitarianism is an attempt to make sure everyone has not only equal rights and opportunities but also equal results.  This idea is easily shown to be nonsense when applied to sports.  Does anyone really believe a 5’1″ un-athletic man should have equal results on the basketball court as the 6’8″ amazingly gifted LeBron James?  Of course not.

So now lets take a closer look at Bowlsby’s comments.

“It is hard to justify paying student-athletes in football and men’s basketball and not recognizing the significant effort that swimmers and wrestlers and lacrosse players and track athletes all put in.  Football and basketball players don’t work any harder than anybody else; they just happen to have the blessing of an adoring public who is willing to pay for the tickets and willing to buy the products on television that come with the high visibility.”  

Just because schools might decide to pay football and basketball players doesn’t mean the school is not recognizing the efforts of other athletes.  A ditch digger might work just as hard as a brain surgeon but do we really need to pay them an equal salary?  The skills and expertise of a brain surgeon is in more demand than the ditch digger, thus customers pay him more.

The same holds true for college athletics.  Fans can vote with their dollars and their eyeballs.  Of their own choice they buy a ticket to a football game or a track meet.  Of their own choice they can watch a basketball game on TV or a lacrosse game.

Bowlsby seems to think schools will be committing an unjustifiable act by paying athletes who draw big crowds.  Is it true then that the fans that pay to watch the football & basketball teams play but don’t pay to go watch lacrosse are also committing an unjustifiable act?  Of course not.

“We have both a legal obligation and a moral obligation to do for female student-athletes and male Olympic sports athletes just exactly what we do for football and basketball student-athletes.  I don’t think it’s even debatable.”

Really?  So how are you going to get 100,000 rabid fans cheering for women’s soccer just like they do for Alabama football?  How are you going to fulfill your legal and moral obligation to get networks to pay millions in rights fees for women’s gymnastics and men’s cross country?  How are you going to make sure the badminton team gets to visit Miami or LA just the like the football team which got to play in a bowl game?

Schools should treat all athletes fairly and with respect, but they’re not the same.  Their experiences are not the same.  Losing teams have different experiences than winning teams.  High profile teams that bring in revenue have different experiences than non-revenue teams.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

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