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“Athletes Who Play Sports Nobody Watches Would Like To Have the Money Instead” Is Not A Good Argument For Not Paying Players


Tom Scocca on the latest ridiculous defense of the NCAA’s peonage system to appear on the nation’s major op-ed pages:

Yet Cody McDavis, a former player whose career peaked with scoring 5.9 points per game for Northern Colorado, used the New York Times opinion page to argue that athletes like him are entitled to the benefits of Williamson’s unpaid labor. If players like Williamson—who injured his knee last week because of the on-court breakup of one of the shoes he’s required to wear under Nike’s multimillion-dollar deal with Duke—were to collect a share of the money other people make off them, McDavis wrote, it “would distort the economics of college sports in a way that would hurt the broader community of student-athletes, universities, fans and alumni.”

The only reason Zion Williamson is a part of the community of student-athletes is that he was forced to be one, thanks to the mutual interests of the National College Athletic Association and the National Basketball Association, which led the NBA to bar 18-year-olds from the pros in 2005. With high schoolers blocked from going straight to the NBA, the NCAA got to market the spectacle of NBA-level talent playing a mandatory year of college ball, and the NBA got to reduce its risk of overpaying for teenagers who hadn’t been tested against older and more talented players. And Williamson got to risk blowing out his knee while playing for free.

McDavis did not dwell on Williamson’s situation, or on the fact that even the NBA has gotten tired of the current system and is trying to lower the draft age back from 19 to 18. His argument existed outside of history, like someone arguing that the reason to overthrow Venezuela is to stop more dominoes from falling to Communism in Latin America. Williamson was just a peg for the timeless argument in favor of the status quo in college sports: paying the players would cost too much money.

“A handful of big sports programs would pay top dollar for a select few athletes,” McDavis wrote, “while almost every other college would get caught up in a bidding war it couldn’t afford.” This would be a real mess, to see colleges caught up in a frenzy of overspending on college athletics…


According to a spreadsheet of staff salaries on the university’s website, the athletic department at the University of Northern Colorado currently employs more than 70 full-time coaches and administrators, including a Senior Associate Athletic Director at $91,304, an Assistant Athletic Director at $53,070, a Director of Administration at $50,000, a Director of Sports Performance at $51,000, a Director of Marketing and Fan Experience at $50,000, and a Director of Strategic Communications at $50,000.

And none of this spending has made anyone care about the University of Northern Colorado’s sports program! The only real national attention the athletic department ever got came in 2007, when football team’s backup punter was convicted of stabbing the starting punter in the leg, in an apparent attempt to take over the job.

For some reason, in my experience people take the “but what about the scholarships of the water polo team?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?” argument more seriously than any other terrible argument made in defense of an obviously indefensible system. But it’s an transparently bad argument for two obvious reasons:

  • There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that paying players would cause most schools to shut down most of their other teams, for the obvious reason that most schools who have them lose money on most or all of their teams and continue to offer them anyway. Fourth-rate programs are willing to pay good salaries to replacement-level coaches (not to mention the inevitable accopanying extra administrators) for teams that produce negligible or no revenue, but we’re supposed to believe that the entire structure of college athletics would collapse if some of the players got in on it? This makes less than no sense, even before we get to the point that this doesn’t explain why virtually everybody making this argument supports the ban on third parties compensating players, which not only doesn’t represent a redistribution of university resources but takes some money out of the pockets of athletes in non-big-revenue sports.
  • But let’s say arguendo that we would reach the bottom of the slippery slope. The correct answer is “who gives a shit?” Teams don’t have to offer any particular competitive organized sport! They don’t have to offer any sports at all! A university that decides to disband its other programs to focus on football and hoops, so long as it offers enough opportunities to women to comply with Title IX, is not making an inherently better or worse decision than universities that don’t offer football.

Like the Electoral College, the NCAA’s peonage system generates an endless series of defenses because it’s the way things are and some particular powerful interests benefit, and each one is worst than the last.

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