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The NCAA Cartel Is Not Designed to Reward Hard Work

[ 49 ] April 5, 2011 |

I prefer NCAA hoops to the NBA, but I still don’t understand Chait’s argument here at all:

I’ve never been clear on exactly what Yglesias is proposing. Is he saying that only athletes in revenue-generating sports should be paid? Or is he saying that all college athletes should be paid? If it’s the latter — and Yglesias focuses his argument entirely on the merits of paying student-athletes at revenue-generating sports — I don’t know what his reason is. The women’s cross country team at Connecticut works just as hard as the men’s basketball team.

Your point being? By the same token, there are presumably plenty of players at Toldeo who work as hard as Miguel Cabrera, but are making a couple thousand a month rather than millions of dollars a year because the latter’s efforts and very special skills are vastly more valuable to the Tigers organization. And professional basketball (and football and baseball and ice hockey) players make vastly more than cross-country runners not because they work harder but because many more people are willing to pay to watch them. As Chait of course understands in every context but college athletics, hard work and income are very loosely correlated.

So I don’t really see a dilemma here. If restrictions on compensating athletes were lifted, the vast majority of college athletes would not be paid. But it’s still hard to see why this means that coaches, administrators, and network employees are allowed to make as much money as they can from NCAA football and basketball while the players whose labor actually generates most of the revenue are only allowed to receive scholarships.

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  1. howard says:

    it would be one thing if the huge revenues the football and basketball factories generate were used to improve overall education and/or reduce fees for students in general: then i could sorta sympathize.

    but of course nothing of the sort actually happens. instead, we live in a world where (to pick a recent example highlighted in seattle’s sunday paper), the university of washington is turning down highly qualified students from in-state in lieu of those from out-of-state who can be charged much higher tuition….

  2. wengler says:

    The football and basketball programs should be spun off as commercial enterprises. They can either integrate with their major leagues as part of a developmental league or become competitors.

    • Anonymous says:

      Doing so would harm education- at least in some of the larger state schools where the Football teams (the Athletic Department as a whole but lets be honest) make sizable contributions to the the general fund.

      • Aaron says:

        A tiny number of schools.

        Most state schools would be well-served to end their higher-cost sports programs. But no one wants to be the first. For that matter, many have trustees whose views on the intangible benefits to the university of perpetuating their money-losing programs verge on the delusional.

        If athletes were paid based upon the revenues generated by their teams, or under some sort of conference-wide formula out of TV revenue (so as to not skew the talent pool too much), I expect that you would see some colleges kicked out of conferences that presently turn a blind eye to their marginal performance, and some colleges and conferences that couldn’t compete for talent in that type of market – which is fine, because their athletes really would be playing for scholarships.

  3. Anonymous says:

    but of course nothing of the sort actually happens. instead, we live in a world where (to pick a recent example highlighted in seattle’s sunday paper), the university of washington is turning down highly qualified students from in-state in lieu of those from out-of-state who can be charged much higher tuition….

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but this seems like an obvious non-sequitor to me. On this particular policy, I’ll defend UW here–the state government is rapidly withdrawing financial support for UW, leaving them to choose between a decline in quality or finding other revenue sources. If the people of Washington want a bunch of seats reserved for their children at a top-flight university at subsidized rates, they should elect politicians who are willing to find a way to make that feasible. What this has to do with college athletics is not at all clear to me.
    (Besides, if you look at the numbers, they story is pretty out of proportion–the plan is to reduce in-state students to 70% of the Freshman class, down from 73%.)

    The proposal to allow college athletes to be paid, it seems to me, is best understood as a solution to a very simple problem–the exploitation of college athletes. Any contributions it makes to the larger problems of universities are entirely secondary. (Besides, if you look at the numbers, they story is pretty out of proportion–the plan is to reduce in-state students to 70% of the Freshman class, down from 73%.)

    • Erik Loomis says:

      And one could justify a reduction of in-state students on the basis of geographic diversity, a worthy aim in itself.

      • howard says:

        i’m pointing out that the university of washington generates tremendous revenues out of football and uses them in the typical way, while at the same time facing a financial problem that undercuts a long-standing mission of the school.

        if you think that changing policies at the university are a good thing, fine, but it doesn’t change the reality that the revenues aren’t used to subsidize education.

        and of course the legislature is the primary villain, but it doesn’t change the reality that the revenues aren’t used to subsidize education.

        • djw says:

          Sorry, I missed your point entirely, although it was clear enough. I see your point, but I can’t really agree. I don’t really see a coherent justification for exploiting the labor of a handful of student athletes (who skew poor and minority relative to the larger student body) in order to provide a an education subsidy which primarily benefits the upper middle class at schools like UW the taxpayers and politicians are too cheap or short-sighted to pay themselves.

  4. efgoldman says:

    One might as well say: superior musicians in college shouldn’t be allowed to take paid gigs unless all the musicians get paid gigs.

    But, see, there’s no huge industry with billion-dollar Teevee contracts exploiting university musicians.

    • gmack says:

      It’s an interesting example. The students where I teach (the Eastman School of Music) are welcome to take paid gigs whenever they want. Indeed, the School facilitates the process, allowing student groups to advertise their services on the website. Curiously, I’d never thought to compare this to the treatment of student athletes…

    • Do the funds secured by schools with big time sports programs go anywhere other than back into the sports programs? Part of the problem seems to be that sports are merely an adjunct to the educational mission of higher education. This is most acute in basketball, although also common in football. Crew, cross-county fencing, swimming and the like seem to mostly be sports that exist for students who are mostly students to engage in. World class athletes in these sports either forgo college-level participation, like Michael Phelps, or participate for four years, get their degrees, and then move on in the sport. (Most distance runners don’t come into their own until they are nearing 30. School is a stop along the way, then they are sponsored by shoe companies, or by entities like the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.)

      I guess I just don’t see the point of supporting a college sport that a regular college student can’t participate in, except as a spectator.

      • Hogan says:

        Do the funds secured by schools with big time sports programs go anywhere other than back into the sports programs?

        I’m pretty sure they don’t. As the gangster in The Long Goodbye puts it, I gotta make a lotta money so I can juice the guys I gotta juice so I can make a lotta money so I can juice the guys I gotta juice.

        Or in the words of Metric, buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car.

      • NonyNony says:

        Do the funds secured by schools with big time sports programs go anywhere other than back into the sports programs? Part of the problem seems to be that sports are merely an adjunct to the educational mission of higher education.

        For the big football and basketball schools the sports teams function as advertising/outreach to attract students and, more to the point, to attract alumni donations. “Doesn’t watching this game remind you of how awesome your time at Notre Dame/U of M/Ohio State/Florida was? Remember what a great school it was? Why not send some money their way?” Anecdotal evidence suggests that it works too, so long as those programs can fund themselves.

        In fact, I used to be in favor of big schools cutting their football and basketball programs loose entirely – spin the damn NCAA off into a non-profit farm club system where they license the team names and mascots from the universities and then run it like a farm club system where the athletes get tuition reimbursement as a benefit.

        But I’ve became convinced that the big benefit that schools get from their sports teams is support in the state legislatures – for example, I think Ohio State benefits a lot from having a football program that is widely followed in the state of Ohio, and I think that helps the school when it comes time to lobby the legislature at budget time.

        • It’s always sort of been my understanding that football and hoops are promotional tools, which means that they are very expensive promotional tools indeed. We took a wrong turn somewhere, and attached sports to school, instead of developing a club system. It would be interesting to see how that happened.

  5. hv says:

    I thought the debate over whether some college athletes get paid vs. all college athletes get paid is a Title IX thing.

    Drawing analogies to the real world labor market is of course immediately suspect, given that constraint.

  6. H-Bob says:

    The current structure of US universities is interesting:

    1) Private universities provide tax-exempt status for their affiliated hedge funds; and

    2) Public universities offer minor league sports.

  7. Anonymous says:

    1) Private universities provide tax-exempt status for their affiliated hedge funds; and

    This describes Harvard and a few other schools; the vast majority of private schools have relatively minor endowments that are primarily used to actively support the endowment.

  8. Scott P. says:

    You don’t quite get all the way there. Not only would the vast majority of student athletes not get paid, they would also lose their scholarships, to pay for the few who did get a salary.

  9. Seitz says:

    First of all, Scott, let’s not forget that scholarships pay for more than tuition. They pay for room and board, the training table, tutoring, etc. That’s a hell of a lot more than most students get.

    Regardless, what bothers me the most about this subject is that proponents of “paying” players (as if they already aren’t receiving compensation) never put forth a plan. They just say “pay the players” and that’s it. If we’re really concerned about players being “exploited” by their university athletic departments, do we pay on a sliding scale based on talent? Auburn made a lot of money off Cam Newton, but they didn’t make a dime off the fourth string offensive lineman who never saw the field. Why should that guy get as much money as the star quarterback? How is that fair? Do we let players negotiate their own salary? If not, why not? What about five star recruits that don’t pan out? Do they get more money because they were more highly regarded than the three star recruits that develops into an integral part of the team?

    This is Frank Deford’s big kick every couple a months, but never once have I heard him describe the system he would like to see.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      If only there was some system that allowed supply to meet demand, all your questions could be answered. Maybe one day one will be invented.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        What a novel concept. Plus you get supply AND demand, plotted on two intersecting lines. It’s not as cool as a Laugher Curve that magically balances federal budgets, but it just might work.

        We just have to keep the Steinbrenners from buying Notre Dame.

  10. Steve S. says:

    the players whose labor actually generates most of the revenue are only allowed to receive scholarships.

    Hell, I’m still trying to figure out why I as a TA did tens of thousands of dollars worth of skilled labor for a university and all I got in return was a few thousand dollars worth of aid.

    I think we can start paying college athletes right after we start paying graduate assistants what they’re worth. But not before. Until that magical day they can play for their puny little scholarships and abide by the rules, or if they feel they’re being exploited they can get a goddamned lawyer and sue the NFL or NBA. Alternatively we can officially end college football/basketball and form a league of semiprofessional players, licensing the teams with the old college names and colors but making clear that these are not college students and they aren’t getting scholarships. I’d be perfectly happy with either of those scenarios, but until then they can play by the rules, anachronistic or no, as far as I’m concerned.

    • djw says:

      I think we can start paying college athletes right after we start paying graduate assistants what they’re worth.

      Complete non-sequitor. For one thing, graduate assistants are, in fact, paid wages and student athletes are not. That their salaries are arguably lower than they ought to be is no more relevant to this discussion than the salary of faculty, janitors, university administrators, student library assistants, or any other group of employees.

      • Steve S. says:

        That their salaries are arguably lower than they ought to be

        “Arguably”? Are you joking? What’s the market rate for someone with an undergrad degree who has specialized knowledge in an arcane subject such that he or she is qualified to compose and grade examinations for college students (amongst other duties)?

        no more relevant to this discussion than the salary of faculty, janitors, university administrators, student library assistants, or any other group of employees.

        Uh, completely relevant. Our universities systematically rip off thousands of people but you’re only interested in the plight of the miniscule fraction who will play in the NBA or NFL. I can’t fully assess the quality of the argument until I understand why this tiny class of people are uniquely exploited.

        • Robert Farley says:

          “Our universities systematically rip off thousands of people but you’re only interested in the plight of the miniscule fraction who will play in the NBA or NFL. I can’t fully assess the quality of the argument until I understand why this tiny class of people are uniquely exploited.”

          Non-sequiter to the point of being obtuse. Complaining about the treatment of star athletes hardly precludes complaining about the treatment of graduate students; indeed, you’ll find that we’ve done both. And there does seem to be a quantitative difference between the exploitation of John Wall (to the tune of several million dollars) and the exploitation of myself (probably to the tune of five digits over the course of my graduate career).

          • Anonymous says:

            The difference in levels of exploitation is such that its almost laughable- at least at the extremes- compare the money a University extracts from not just a scholarship athlete but a top level scholarship athlete whose jersey is sold for 100 bucks a pop in the campus store- The difference between a Tebow or a Wall and your average grad student runs into the millions.

          • Steve S. says:

            Complaining about the treatment of star athletes hardly precludes complaining about the treatment of graduate students; indeed, you’ll find that we’ve done both.

            Ah. And probably proportional to the number of people in each class, and the degree to which those individuals are being exploited. I wonder what a search of the LGM archives would reveal in those regards. But it doesn’t matter, because the actual point of the OP was that it’s unfair for coaches to make fat cash if players can’t. I actually agree with that isolated point, even though it is obviously a “non-sequiter [sic] to the point of being obtuse”.

            Non-sequiter to the point of being obtuse.

            What’s mind-bogglingly obtuse about the entire premise of the OP is that the parties responsible for the exploitation don’t even get so much as a mention.

            If Terrelle Pryor was good enough to play football for money in the private sector last year or the year before why is he not doing so? What stopped him from earning his market value in this way?

            Is the only answer for OSU to cut him a check for $100K (or whatever)? Or is there a far less obtuse, far more logical answer?

            Your essay is due in the morning.

            • Robert Farley says:

              Steve,

              Go ahead and search, but please note that at least the original LGM posters have actually gone on strike in service of improved compensation for and payment of graduate student workers, while we haven’t for athletes.

              It’s pretty clear that you’re being indignant for the sake of being indignant, since at this point (and with your comment below) you’re effectively agreeing with almost every “isolated” point being made. You’re disagreeing only with the points you’ve invented, including the “$100000 for Pryor” and “Nobody pays attention to grad students!”

          • Seitz says:

            John Wall has two entities to blame for his exploitation, and neither are the NCAA. They are the NBA, who wouldn’t let him play out of high school, and John Wall, who decided to play in college instead of playing for money in Europe. If you’re that cheesed off about poor millionaire John Wall being exploited, take it up with the NBA and John Wall.

            • Robert Farley says:

              Seitz,

              The NCAA obviously benefits from NBA rules, and is in a de facto cooperative arrangement with the NBA to showcase and develop freshmen basketball players, thus reducing the risk that NBA teams face. And of course yes, John Wall could have gone to Europe or done something else with his time, but these options would have resulted in reduced visibility and quite possibly a lower draft position. That he chose his best option within an unjust system hardly justifies that system.

        • djw says:

          You seem to have adopted as an operating principle the notion that as long as Exploitative arrangement Y exists, and exploitative arrangement Y is a more significant problem for justice than exploitative arrangement X until Y has been fully resolved.

          This strikes me as A) transparently absurd, and B) self-defeating to your own concerns, as there are many worse exploitative arrangements than the those concerning those surrounding graduate assistants.

          • djw says:

            bah–first paragraph should end, until exploitative arrangement Y has been resolved, exploitative arrangement X shouldn’t concern anyone.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              I’m proud of the teaching work I did as a grad student, but the last time I checked the university didn’t get paid large sums of money to broadcast my lectures.

              • Steve S. says:

                Irrelevant to the point of being obtuse. If the university had to bid competitively for people to grade undergraduate physics (or whatever) papers, what would they be paying?

              • elm says:

                If the university had to bid competitively for people to grade undergraduate physics (or whatever) papers, what would they be paying?

                Wikipedia claims that adjunct faculty often make about $2000 a class. I don’t know the veracity of this number (their cite doesn’t actually support this claim directly) the number is similar to what I’ve seen and heard. And adjuncts typically have a PhD.

                Now, it is true that adjuncts are also exploited, but universities are bidding for these adjuncts and they are getting paid often times less than what grad students are getting paid. So your argument seems flawed.

                Also, what’s missing from your argument is that grad student instructors are paid for their labor and, thus, have the right to unionize (most places) and have actually done so many places. Thus, while they are certainly still exploited, they have much more bargaining leverage over their pay and working conditions than do “student-athletes” who aren’t even viewed as workers providing labor.

              • FMguru says:

                Also, you didn’t have to adhere to all kinds of rules about what you could do and not do on the side. You could work a second job, receive gifts from friends, sell off your books and lecture notes, whatever. Compare to athletes who can lose their scholarship for selling their old game jerseys in order to afford Christmas presents for their family.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Uh, universities do bid competitively for people to grade papers. I certainly didn’t consider attending graduate programs that didn’t offer me a guaranteed stipend.

  11. Steve S. says:

    Let me try to pre-empt some further argumentation by stating clearly what I think the options are.

    1. Status quo. I’d be fine with that.
    2. Status quo plus all scholarship athletes get a modest stipend. I’d be fine with that.
    3. Status quo plus additional restrictions on what “coaches, administrators, and network employees are allowed to make.” I’d be fine with that.
    4. Peel men’s basketball and football away from the general college community. Call them “ATT presents the Auburn Tigers!!!”, license them to use the school name and logo and colors, but make no pretense that Cam Newton is attending class or getting a scholarship. I’d be fine with that.
    5. The NFL either allows players straight out of high school or funds their own developmental league or both. I’d be fine with that.

    What I wouldn’t be fine with is status quo + cut Terrelle Pryor a check for $100K. If y’all can’t see the myriad of problems this would create, in terms of fairness and other issues, I can’t help you.

    • elm says:

      What I wouldn’t be fine with is status quo + cut Terrelle Pryor a check for $100K.

      I love the smell of burning straw late in the evening.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        Pryor getting a $100K check wouldn’t make me hate him any more, or any less.

      • Robert Farley says:

        Seconded. Steve S. has effectively granted all of the points made in the post, while inventing several new ones (LGM posters think Terrelle Pryor should get a check for $100000! LGM posters don’t talk enough about the plight of graduate teaching fellows!) to be outraged about.

        Have fun with your indignation, Steve; I’m afraid, indeed, that you can’t help us…

  12. LosGatosCA says:

    It’s a riot watching society in general apply their arcane ‘rules’ on athletes.

    Asking to be fairly paid is un-American, or something, asking or holding out for a raise with the current team makes them ‘ungrateful’, signing a free agent contract for the most money in another city makes them a ‘traitor.’

    The sense of the typical sports fan’s entitlement (at every level) without any respect for the players as people pursuing their own happiness is as relentless as it is ridiculous.

  13. charles pierce says:

    Welcome to my nightmare. In my occasional gig as a sportswriter,’ve been losing this argument for going on 30 years now.

  14. [...] must hate college sports.    The bulk of his defense of the NCAA cartel relies on red herrings he’s used before. I’m sure it’s true that most cross-country runners and swimmers don’t feel [...]

  15. theod says:

    The NCAA basically argues that the student-athlete would be corrupted by filthy lucre so must not be exposed to any. Then it vacuums up all of the filthy lucre for itself while maintaining that the institution is perfectly free of corruption. This logic can’t hold forever, but it sure has had a long run.

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