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Can the NCAA Cartel Be Defended?

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Jon Chait argues once again that anyone who sees generating massive amounts of revenue from “student”-athletes while denying them most of the benefits as exploitative 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 exploited, but then they shouldn’t feel exploited because their sports don’t generate significant amounts of revenue. And, again, the idea that because cross-country runners and volleyball players work just as hard as SEC football players any system would have to give them the same compensation is bizarre. Many freelancers work just as hard at the same job as Chait for much lower pay and benefits because they work for publications that generate much less revenue than New York and aren’t on salary so whether they get work depends on random editorial needs. Does this mean that Chait’s compensation should be arbitrarily capped so that he’s not paid more than a freelancer who sells a few articles a year? I’m not sure why NCAA athletics would have to be the only organization in capitalist countries that compensates people solely on the basis of the quantity of labor they put in (and if they can’t do that apparently shouldn’t compensate anybody.) Should a socialist utopia prove workable and manifest itself in the United States, we can revisit this issue. This whole line of argument ignores the fact that arguments like Taylor Branch’s are about big-time college athletics, not all athletics per se.

I can’t speak for Branch, but for most critics of the indefensible current system I think the initial goals are fairly modest. I, at least, am not arguing that that players should be treated as employees, which I agree would create problems for the vast majority of college athletes; I’m just arguing that universities shouldn’t be prevented from compensating athletes as they see fit if they want to. And even if we accept arguendo that scholarships are adequate direct compensation, I certainly support the dismantling of elaborate NCAA rules that prevent players from receiving any benefit from ancillary revenues generated from their efforts and likenesses, and that remarkably single out athletes by preventing them from receiving any gifts, benefits, or jobs from third parties. As I’ve said before I’ve never seen a decent defense of these transparently exploitative rules (just the invoking the concept of “amateurism” certainly doesn’t constitute a decent defense), and Chait doesn’t even try to mount one.

Some of the reforms Chait proposes I agree with, but they aren’t inconsistent with broader critiques of the system and also don’t address much of the exploitation. I would probably support rules that say that you can’t revoke athletic scholarships from students in good standing that are willing to play, but I don’t understand why we can’t do that and allow players to make money off jerseys with their numbers if companies are selling them. Chait concludes by saying that “Major college sports have grown more mercenary. The answer is to brake that trend, not to accelerate it.” But this is just futile hand-waving. Big-time NCAA programs are already massive revenue generators, and that’s not going to change. I don’t think “amateurism” per se has much value, but even if you do that ship long ago left port, been struck with several missiles, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The only question is whether athletes in revenue-generating sports will get a fairer cut of the pie.  Nothing in Chait’s lengthy post explains why they shouldn’t.

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