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We Have A Problem, And the Solution Is That Everything Is Just Fine

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A reader points us to this Gregg Easterbrook defense of the NCAA, which goes to absurd contortions to defend the status quo even for Easterbook. The column starts out promisingly, accurately describing the problem:

Johnny Manziel stands accused of breaking NCAA rules by selling his autograph; the accusation follows a series of temper tantrums by the Heisman winner, who is barely even pretending to be a college student. The NCAA once again seems the pinnacle of hypocrisy, its rules threatening him, though the Indianapolis organization profits in every possible way from the sweat of unpaid athletes. How can NCAA president Mark Emmert live with himself? Easy — Steve Berkowitz reports Emmert is paid $1.7 million a year to fast-talk his way through NCAA hypocrisy.

Texas A&M doesn’t look so hot, either. The school has not exactly offered to give back the $37 million that, by its own estimate, Johnny Football pulled in for the Aggies last season. The big conferences and powerhouse programs look bad, drowning in cash generated by unpaid players — $81 million in football revenue and $44 million in football profit last season at BCS champion Alabama, according to Department of Education figures.

Big time NCAA football generates a lot of money because a lot of people like watching it. The current system allows everyone involved to shove as much money as they can into their gaping maws except for the players who are the primary source of this revenue and many of whom are turning their brains into mush in the course of making a bunch of coaches and bureaucrats of varying accomplishment very wealthy. The players putting their health at risk aren’t even able to make deals with third parties to be compensated. To describe this state of affairs is to make the remedy clear to any clear-thinking person. How Easterbrook interprets this set of facts, conversely, is grimly remarkable:

Here’s the problem. In a free-market situation, Manziel would be raking in fees, as would Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and a few others. The current rules clearly penalize them. But they are stars — the ones likely to become wealthy from sports in any case. If NCAA strictures on player income were dropped, the winner-take-all aspect of athletic economics, already a problem, would become extreme. A small number of collegiate stars would roll in money from age 19 on, while the overwhelming majority of collegiate players would receive pocket change or nothing at all.

I’ve seen similar arguments before from Jon Chait, who unlike Easterbrook is normally a very sharp thinker but is turned into a fuzzy one by his affection for the NCAA. The answer is “so what?” This is America; I’m not sure why NCAA athletes, and only NCAA athletes, are expected to be denied market compensation until the United States becomes a Marxist utopia. (Particularly since athletics are closer to being an actual meritocracy than pretty much any other American labor market.) The field of journalism, too, involves a few extremely well-compensated superstars and many, many more people who work as hard or harder but are barely scraping by. Somehow, I doubt that Easterbrook would agree that therefore his compensation from ESPN should be capped at $10/hour with no benefits and he should be prohibited from profiting from any other writing he does. (And nor, I should add, would such rules be any more defensible because some people would surely sign contracts under these terms.)

At least showing the good sense not to want his readers to think about this very long, Easterbrook starts waving his hands in another direction:

Perhaps the public would not care if college athletes were paid; maybe Division I is just another pro football league that leases college logos. But if paid football players ended the charm of collegiate sports, the scholarship system might falter.

[…]

It is ridiculous that the NCAA shafts athletes even after they leave college — let’s hope lead plaintiff Ed O’Bannon wins the lawsuit on that point. But it is fair for the NCAA to say to Manziel and others like him, “If you want to use our system to become famous, you must follow our rules.” Screwed up as the system is, it does confer most of its benefits on average athletes.

We have descended, as Brother Pierce would put it, to the bottom of the great lake of FAIL:

  • The idea that Johnny Manziel being allowed to profit from signing autographs or from other memorabilia sales would destroy the popularity of NCAA is implausible in the extreme.  Why every other professional league in the world not to mention the Olympics can thrive with a small number of stars getting most of the money but the NCAA’s popularity would crater — I have no idea why this would possibly happen, and neither does Easterbrook, because it doesn’t make the slightest shred of sense.  People might care about the Noble Ideals of Amateurism even less than they care about federalism.
  • But even if the Astros win the 2013 World Series and the Democrats took Utah in the electoral college in 2016 and players making money from selling jerseys with their names on them caused the popularity of the NCAA to decline, again, so what?  I don’t particularly care about what’s on the interests of the NCAA; even if compensating players would mean that the NCAA wasn’t maximizing its revenues, that’s not actually a good justification for grossly exploiting the players.  It’s like saying that the crucial question of the 19th Amendment was whether men would benefit.  (A question that Easterbrook probably would have been asking had he been alive in 1920.)
  • The utter implausibility of the idea that allowing players to make deals with third parties or otherwise compensating them would destroy the scholarship system renders the punchline just Gilded Age logic.  “If Manziel wants to play, he has to play by the rules.”  I refer to my earlier example about sportswriters.   “If Easterbrook wants to write a football column to become famous, he shouldn’t be allowed to make any more than the junior local politics blogger at the typical small-town newspaper.”  I’m pretty sure if the rules he’s advocating were applied to him he’d see the problems pretty quickly.  And I note as well that it’s odd that “exposure” is two of three million smackers a year short of being adequate compensation for the people coaching the athletes for some reason.
  • And finally, to state the obvious protecting ordinary scholarship players has nothing to do with NCAA rules.  If that’s the concern, the solution is a floor, not a ceiling.  But no players are going to make more money because Johnny Manziel can’t sign autographs for money.
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