Commentary

End College Sports Indentured Servitude: Pay “Student Athletes”

College sport is a religion for many American males. Millions of aging, overweight men relive their youth by cheering on their favorite teams. The system of “student-athletics” run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association is big business.

American universities have crafted an appealing image of “student-athletes.” Kids go to school while playing sports on the side. They build character while representing their schools. Everyone gains.

In many schools and many sports students play because they love the game, not because they receive scholarships. Most scholarship players don’t expect to become pros; indeed, there are no professional leagues for lacrosse, rowing, wrestling, and many other college events. Smaller schools mostly lose money on sports, though competition helps maintain the link between colleges and their alumni.

Even college baseball and hockey primarily attract genuine students. Young men seeking sports careers go directly into the pros, often through minor leagues. University and professional leagues operate in parallel.

Very different, however, are basketball (men’s) and football. Former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera: “Most sports can be justified as part of what a university does. But big-time football and men’s basketball are clearly commercial entertainment and have been pulled away from the fundamental purpose of a university.”

These two sports are essentially professional operations, generating annual revenue in excess of $6 billion—more than the National Basketball Association, observed Nocera. Many schools rake in big bucks. Some university presidents make extraordinary salaries. Athletic directors are well-paid administrators.

University coaches also are big winners. Duke economist Charles Clotfelter figured that the average salary for public university football coaches is $2 million. Bonuses could push the compensation of Mark Brown of the University of Texas to over $6 million. The Atlantic’s Taylor Branch reported that some annual basketball coach salaries exceed $4 million. Top coaches also collect endorsement cash and sometimes even a percentage of ticket receipts—and may earn even more money if tapped by the pros. Assistant coaches often earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; at least one assistant coach has broken the million dollar barrier.

There are other beneficiaries of “student-athletics.” Argued sports journalist Robert Lipsyte: “The true madness of March is the millions of dollars—generated by the kids who touch the ball—that goes mostly to the advertising hustlers, television suits, arena operators, concession hawkers, athletic gear manufacturers and retailers, university administrators, coaches and sports media noisemakers.”

Pro teams also like the existing system. Universities act as a quasi-farm system, discovering talent, training players, and highlighting performance for free. In contrast to baseball and hockey, professional basketball and football franchises enjoy the help of others to turn immature, self-interested, and undeveloped teenagers into effective team players.

Only in basketball and football has college become the principal gateway to the pros. Of course, few university basketball or football players make the NBA or NFL. But even the slim possibility remains the best alternative for some “student-athletes.”

Kids increasingly attempted to go directly from high school to professional play. In response, the leagues protected their free farm system by imposing age minimums. Supposedly 18-year-olds lack the necessary mental and physical maturity to succeed in the pros. However, baseball and hockey take kids out of high school. European soccer draws even younger teens into professional play.

Even as universities make money exploiting the names and images of students, “the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn, noted author Branch in the Atlantic. Everyone except the “student-athletes” have their hands in the till. Yet “The whole edifice depends on the players’ willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work,” observed Branch.

Economist Andy Schwarz told Nocera that “Economically, a big chunk of that money really does belong to the players.” Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown opined: “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.” Schools claim they can’t afford to pay students, but they could redistribute existing revenue. Nocera suggested paying coaches less.

Yes, players get scholarships, though the latter is not an expenditure for the university. The marginal educational cost of admitting an additional student is essentially zero.

Moreover, even the NCAA figures that the average scholarship leaves “student-athletes” $3500 short of the cost of attending school. For this reason last October the NCAA decided to authorize a $2000 stipend for “student-athletes,” before retreating under pressure from member schools.

Worse, for the most athletic students most interested in a pro career, college sports is indentured servitude, forcing them to work for an education they don’t want. A university education is not a benefit but an opportunity cost, a four-year loss of paid playing time. In theory, a college degree could act as a career back-up given the paucity of professional opportunities, but the “student-athletes” most likely to focus on sports are least likely to graduate, especially with a useful degree after majoring in “eligibility,” as Duderstadt put it.

Even room and board—of course, not where and how such students would normally choose—is scant recompense. College play may provide camaraderie; top players like Stanford’s Andrew Luck sometimes eschew the opportunity to turn pro early. However, the kids most likely to do so believe in college for reasons other than career. Finally, “student-athletes” benefit from coaching and player development, but pro teams provide the same while paying players.

Nevertheless, the NCAA works overtime to ensure that kids enjoy no extra benefits, even, for instance, discounts for tattoos in exchange for autographs. It doesn’t matter if “student-athletes” come from broken and impoverished families, and have no money or educational future. Need help supporting an impecunious mother or getting home for a funeral? Fuggetabout it! Noted Nocera: “Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of NCAA rules.” This as everyone else in the system fills their wallets with money earned from the labor of “student-athletes.”

Branch well details the NCAA’s extraordinary abuse of “student-athletes” and their families. Attorney Rick Johnson told Branch: “All the NCAA’s enforcements are random and selective.” A private monopoly, the organization mimics the abuses of any government star chamber.

Wrote Nocera: “When the NCAA investigates an athlete for breaking its rules, not only is he presumed guilty but his punishment begins before he knows what he’s accused of. He is not told who his accuser is. The NCAA will delve into the personal relationships of his relatives and demand their bank statements and other private records. And it will hand down its verdict without so much as a hearing. Reputations have been ruined on accusations so flimsy that they would be laughed out of any court in the land.”

The NCAA also enables extraordinary university control over students. Nocera reported how St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and basketball coach Phil Martelli prevented one “student-athlete” from transferring to another college, as if he was under professional contract.

The NCAA baptizes cartel enforcement with obnoxious sanctimony. The organization issued an undated statement explaining why student athletes are not paid. “Student-athletes are students first and athletes second.” But not necessarily by their choice. “The benefits of the student-athlete experience are many.” True for many kids—the real “student-athletes.” But not for those who attend university in order to get into the pros.

“Only 30 percent of Division I football and 26 percent of Division I men’s basketball programs post revenues over expenses.” These are the de facto professional operations which should pay their players. “Intercollegiate athletics programs are necessarily composed of many sports, many of which generate significant expenses over revenues.” It doesn’t matter whether schools use money seized from “student-athletes” to pay for the president’s salary, build a new music center, or underwrite basket-weaving competition. The players are being unfairly exploited.

No doubt rationalizing the current system would not be easy. Branch contended that “The most basic reform would treat the students as what they are—adults, with rights and reason of their own—and grant them a meaningful voice in NCAA deliberations.” If the NCAA purports to advance the ideal of “student-athletes,” it should actually take the interests of “student-athletes” into account.

Still, more people than just university presidents oppose paying college players. For instance, Jonathan Chait of the New Republic argued: “paying players bears no relationship to the purported goal of helping protect college athletes. The abuses in college athletics—and they are real—stem from the growing imposition of market forces.”

The problem is not market forces, but the fact that “student-athletics” today mixes two very different systems. The first is students playing athletics. The second is quasi-professionals sporting an academic veneer. It is impossible to eliminate market forces from the latter.

The simplest solution would be to pay the “student-athletes” who generate the bulk of the revenue for big schools in big sports. Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis argued that the only place where support for paying students is growing is the media: “There is no movement—none—within the actual governing structure of the NCAA to professionalize college athletes.” Of course: why would universities want to give up any of their ill-gotten gains?

A decade ago the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics called paying students “an unacceptable surrender to despair.” Even Branch admitted: “It feels abhorrent—but for reasons having to do more with sentiment than with practicality or law.”

However, more than journalists have begun looking behind the fraudulent ideal of “student-athletics.” Last year the NCAA Okayed paying students $2000 while denying that it was “paying” students. But the stipend differs in degree, not kind, from market-based compensation.

Moreover, Branch pointed to the Olympics: “First in marathon races, then in tennis tournaments, players soon were allowed to accept prize money and keep their Olympic eligibility. Athletes profited from sponsorships and endorsements. The International Olympic Committee expunged the word amateur from its charter in 1986. Olympic officials, who had once disdained the NCAA for offering scholarships in exchange for athletic performance, came to welcome millionaire athletes from every quarter.”

Universities could simply bid for the services of athletes. Nocera proposed a system including contracts for athletes, salary caps for teams, two extra years of school scholarships, lifetime health insurance, and an organization to represent players.

A more fundamental solution would be to separate the genuine amateur and de facto professional university teams. As Nocera put it, “Schools that truly couldn’t afford to pay their players would be forced to de-emphasize football and men’s basketball—and, perhaps, regain their identity as institutions of higher learning.” Create different divisions if not entirely separate systems.

Baseball and hockey offer obvious models. Colleges attract true student-athletes while minor leagues hire young men more interested in turning pro than earning a university diploma. The two systems coexist and some students move from the first to the second.

Basketball and football could do the same. The NBA already has a nascent subsidiary system, the NBA Development League. Football could create a minor league. Indeed, secondary football leagues include the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. Universities which today field de facto professional teams could formally link to the NBA and NFL. Of course, noted sports blogger Dan Shanoff, today’s franchises “would probably not like to lose their free feeder system.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert bridled at proposals to share revenue with those who labor hardest in sports. He told Nocera: “If we move toward a pay-for-play model—if we were to convert our student athletes to employees of the university—that would be the death of college athletics.” But how do today’s big money basketball and football represent anything approaching genuine “student-athletics”?

Emmert also asserted that his organization would develop solutions “that reflect our values.” But what values are promoted by a cartel dedicated to protecting the most privileged at the expense of the most vulnerable?

Americans will continue worshiping at the altar of college sports irrespective of how the system is organized. Most “student-athletes” in most sports at most universities are amateurs. But the system is driven by big money basketball and football competition. That is not going to change. It’s time to share the benefits with those who do the most to keep the system going: the players.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.