Home / General / Is the NCAA Cartel Defensible? (SPOILER: No.)

Is the NCAA Cartel Defensible? (SPOILER: No.)

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Paul’s thread yesterday contained some defenses of the exploitation of athletes by NCAA rules.  These defenses were, of course, rife with factual errors, non-sequiturs, and transparent illogic because all defenses of the NCAA cartel are. 

But there are also a lot of good comments, and I think this point by Pseudonym is particularly important:

The real question at issue isn’t whether they should be compensated but whether they should be barred from being compensated, and by a national cartel with a monopoly on the path to professional status.

Apologists for the NCAA cartel tend to assume that they’re advocating for athletes being treated like other students. But this is completely untrue. What they’re defending is in fact a set of unique and extraordinary burdens being placed on athletes. Virtually no other students are banned from receiving compensation from voluntary third parties, and this is because it won’t make a lick of sense. Why on earth shouldn’t a music student be able to take a paying gig or a journalism student sell a story? Similarly, we don’t claim that scholarship students working as RAs or in the bookstore can’t be compensated, or that staff and faculty who get tuition vouchers for family members don’t need to be additionally compensated for their work. These rules aren’t about ensuring that athletes are “really” students or whatever; they’re about attempting to preserve competitive balance. And this isn’t a good reason to allow athletes to be exploited, even before we get to the fact that the NCAA doesn’t have anything remotely resembling competitive balance even with these rules.

Like most NCAA critics, I’m not arguing that student-athletes are employees subject to minimum wage laws solely for being members of teams. I’m saying that if either colleges or third parties want to pay them market value for their services, they should not forbidden from making the deals. This allows us to quickly dispense with non-sequiturs about the cross-country team or (even sillier) the Dungeons&Dragons club. Most athletic events and intramural activities don’t produce any revenue, so there’s not going to be any money for the participants beyond scholarship money, and that’s fine with me. There might be some cases in which a rich donor really wants an alma mater to have a great cross-country team and offers recruits cash on the barrelhead. And that’s fine with me — I don’t see why donors can give money to universities that enable them to hire a new Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Under Dean For Proactive Strategic Dynamism but should be prohibited from giving money to athletes directly.

Finally, defenses of the NCAA tend to be rife with a rhetorical technique we’ve discussed recently: someone with an indefensible position changing the subject to an allegedly superior alternative that isn’t actually on offer. The obvious problem for NCAA apologists that Paul’s post raises is why athletes should be forbidden cash compensation — not only by universities but by third parties — because of the Noble Ideals of Amateurism and the Sanctity of the Groves of Academe while everybody else involved with the NCAA is allowed to fill up wheelbarrows full of cash and deposit them in university-provided cars and drive off to get a university-provided oil change. One answer is to say that all of the other NCAA-related profit-taking should be stopped. The obvious problem is that it’s not going to be, and in the meantime we have to treat athletes based on the system as it is. If coaches start getting paid like associate professors of English and the NCAA gives its games to networks for free while banning advertising and ticket prices are capped at $10, we can talk about whether scholarships are adequate compensation. (We still don’t need to talk about bans on third party compensation, because these are just terrible policy under any possible system of college athletics.) Until then, players should not be forbidden from getting any compensation they’re able to negotiate.

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