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The Amateurism Fallacy

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When you boil them down, defenses of the NCAA cartel boil down to a “if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same” argument.  Allegedly, the mystique of the NCAA comes down to players being forbidden from receiving anything but scrip as direct compensation, and also having extraordinary, unique bans on third party compensation that don’t apply to any other students imposed on them.  People are not offended by everyone else in the NCAA raking in as much cash as they possibly can, but end the exploitation of players in high-revenue sports and the edifice would crumble.

The most important response to this argument, of course, is “who cares?”  If the popularity of NCAA sports depends on gross exploitation and egregious double standards, then it’s not worth saving.  Sentimentality and trivial aesthetic preferences are pathetically weak justifications for denying the people taking the most risk and generating the most value fair compensation.

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe that the argument is correct on its own terms.  Owners asserted, after all, that free agency would destroy the popularity of pro sports, when in fact the popularity of pro sports exploded after free agency.  What fans will rant about to talk radio hosts has little connection with their future behavior.  In comments in the last thread, I think djw put the point brilliantly:

What’s particularly absurd about the first complaint is that at big-time sports schools, Football and Basketball resemble a professional team already in all the relevant ways: some of the best athletes in the world who treat athletics like more than a full time job, extremely high level of competition and performance, tons of money, marketing, and TV contracts, lots of people making obscene amounts of money, world class facilities, etc. The only real difference is that the people who do the most important and risky labor don’t get paid/get paid in dubious company script. It’s enormously popular.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of DII and DIII schools where the same sports teams resemble the amateur ideal a great deal more–no compensation, HS+ level facilities, part-time coaches, practice and travel schedules that let athletes be students in a meaningful sense, etc. Nobody cared. I attended one of those schools, I only heard my team was playing for a national title by watching sportscenter. (But I did watch UW on TV every week).

Bitter scribe’s assumption is that even though every single step toward professionalism so far has made college sports more popular, that one last step will someone how ruin everything. Let’s just say he’s got a substantial unmet burden of proof here.

The fact that the popularity of college sports is inversely correlated with how closely they embody the Noble Ideals of Amateurism makes claims that compensating players fairly will destroy college sports implausible in the extreme.

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