28 July 2011

Amateur College Athletics Aren't

SI.com | Michael Rosenberg | Star college players like Reggie Bush, Cam Newton should be paid

The 2010-2011 NCAA manual says the 'Principle of Amateurism' is important because college athletics are an 'avocation' and ... hang on, here comes the punchline: 'student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprise.'

Really? When an athlete sells his jersey so he can pay rent, and the NCAA suspends him, is the NCAA really protecting him? Who is the NCAA kidding?
You don't help anyone by not letting them be paid, be they college athletes, interns, apprentices, or organ donors.  It is the height of moral arrogance to think that preventing people from engaging in voluntary transactions is helping or protecting them.  You can talk till you're blue about preventing exploitation, but it all boils down to "I know better than you what is good for you."
If major college sports did not exist, nobody would try to create them -- not as we know them today. The entire enterprise is preposterous. If there were no college sports, 100 school presidents would never issue the following press release:

"We have decided to create sports teams to represent our universities. We will have to admit a lot of students with inferior academic records solely because they can play football or basketball, but hey, we're cool with that. Anyway, what matters here is that we can make billions of dollars doing this, and we're not going to let the players have anything beyond room, board, meals and a few other sundries. Not only that, but we will not allow ANYBODY to give them money. We have decided money is bad for them. It ... uh ... corrupts! Yes. It corrupts. Now: Who wants to buy a personal-seat license?"
Testing for historical coincidence is a good sanity check.

I don't see the logic in this, though:
That NCAA manual devotes 16 pages to amateurism. We can cut it down to one, with one principle:

Athletes may not be paid directly with university funds.
Why not? Why pay people to lead tours, analyze lab data, sell concert tickets, or shelve library books, but not play sports?  Schools can pay the students who hand out the commemorative foam hands, or sweep the stands after a game, but not the students on the field?

And let's be very clear about this: college athletes are already paid.  In waived tuition, fees, and room & board, as well as in gear, training, access to facilities, media exposure, and acceptance letters (which are themselves valuable, make no mistake).  They're paid in goods and services, not cash, but they are paid.  That's probably inefficient and certainly non-transparent.

So they are paid, but there's this odd ceiling on the amount they can be paid, and most of it is determined not by how good the athlete is, but by what their school's sticker price is.  (And the wage premium from getting a degree from that school.)  The question isn't "should we pay college athletes?" but "should we pay college athletes cash in addition to their other payments?"
I once had a remarkably circular conversation with former NCAA president Myles Brand about the NCAA's amateurism rules. One of his chief arguments was this:

"The fact is we don't pay students in other areas when they are engaged in activities as part of their education."

That may be (mostly) true. But colleges don't prevent their students from making additional money either. If a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts is offered $2 million to direct a major-studio movie, that student would still be allowed to take his film classes. USC wouldn't say "Hey, that's no good. Give us your money so we can pay a professor seven figures."
I agree with his point, but I don't think the original claim is even "(mostly) true." I was paid — fairly well, for a student — to do research by Notre Dame. That was certainly part of my education. And they wrote me checks to do it.

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