To Save College Sports, Have Less Free Marketization, Not More

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The University of Phoenix Stadium.Photo: Christian Petersen/2016 Getty Images

Social critics of college sports have existed as long as college sports themselves. “The absorbing interest and excitement of the students, not to speak of the public — in the preparation for the intercollegiate games make a damaging invasion into the proper work of the university for the first ten or twelve weeks of the academic year,” charged University of Michigan president James Angell more than a century ago. As college athletics have increasingly come to resemble the professional version, though, the aim of the critics has changed. No longer do the critics seek to eliminate college sports, or to relegate their importance, but instead to intensify their professionalization in the name of helping college athletes. The old critics were musty academics seeking to restore a bygone social order. The new ones are market absolutists. And while they frame their proposals as a remedy for exploited college athletes, it would have the opposite effect. Through his perch at the New York Times, Joe Nocera has become the foremost spokesperson for the free market absolutist perspective. Nocera’s latest column, sketching out his plan for “reforming” college sports, unwittingly reveals the bankruptcy of this wildly fashionable way of thinking about college sports.

Athletics and high-level education have always stood in tension with each other, but as college sports have increasingly come to resemble the professional version, the tension has grown worse. Playing varsity athletics — once an extracurricular extension of school life, like a beefed-up version of high-school sports — has become a full-time job. Athletes in all college sports, men’s and women’s, face the burden of year-round training, giving them less and less time for academic or social life. The NCAA’s own survey reports that most student-athletes view themselves as athletes more than students, and commit more than 30 hours a week to participating in sports. Many of them say they are too exhausted to study effectively.

The pressure to win has introduced the once-shocking, now increasingly-routine, practice of high-level football programs pushing players who don’t develop off their roster. Not coincidentally, Alabama, the dominant football power of the current era, sits on the cutting edge of this method, which treats its football recruits like professionals who can be cast aside the moment they’re expendable, in violation of the tradition that a scholarship extends the right to four years of tuition in return for participating in sports.

The system works perfectly well for the handful of college athletes with the most market value. Football and men’s basketball players who use their college sports experience as a launching paid to lucrative professional careers wind up rich. It’s everybody else who’s hurt: the players who aren’t good enough to make the pros, and who are losing their chance to get an education. And, while a handful of high-profile football and basketball stars are just using college as a way station, the majority of college athletes are not completely irrational about the economic value of a college degree, which I can state as a fact on the grounds that (1) everybody in America understands that a college degree is valuable, and (2) college athletes are Americans.

Nocera’s remedy is to channel a chunk of the revenue from college athletics into cash payments, with a salary cap. The only sports Nocera proposes to pay are football and men’s basketball. Nocera does not explain why men’s basketball players deserve payment but women’s players do not. This outcome simply flows naturally from Nocera’s stated commitment to “free market principles” as the sacrosanct moral principle that should undergird college athletics. Men’s basketball players have market value, and women’s players do not, therefore male athletes, but not female ones, deserve salaries. (And if you extended payments to all athletes, not just the minority who play football or men’s basketball, the arithmetic undergirding Nocera’s proposal would collapse.)

The closer you look at Nocera’s plan — even the vague, idealized version he presents — the more clear it becomes that he would simply worsen every existing feature of the status quo. Nocera claims that his plan would not entail a net increase in expenditures. “Is offering cash compensation really that much worse than the current system, in which universities build lavish facilities and spend absurd sums on their ‘programs’ to lure good players?” he argues. “Doesn’t it make more sense to give some of that money to the players? It would actually be less expensive.” But why would programs stop spending money on expensive facilities for their athletes? Wouldn’t they just continue to offer lavish facilities on top of cash payments?

Academic scandals have popped up in North Carolina and other schools, which have pressured educators to give passing grades to keep star athletes eligible. Nocera suggests that school performance could be written into contracts between schools and players. But upholding legitimate academic standards would be harder, not easier, when there is a cash contract at stake. Likewise, Nocera proposes to trim football scholarships from the current 85 to 60, which is more in line with an NFL roster. Of course, the NFL maintains its slimmer rosters because it can cut any player the moment their body is unable to perform as well as the available replacement. Which is to say, Nocera’s plan is almost explicitly to accelerate the insidious trend of kicking nonperforming players to the curb.

If you are a free market absolutist, this is all to the good. College athletics creates a broad system of cross subsidies. A handful of athletes, nearly all of them in football and men’s basketball, create large profits, which are distributed mainly to athletes whose cost exceeds their value. (It also finances athletic administrative bloat — though to be fair, this same bloat occurs in academic functions.) Nocera would ramp up the market system, giving more rewards for athletes with market power and fewer protections for those without. Nocera treats market logic as self-evident. But the moral reasoning of market absolutism is a choice we’re free to accept or reject.

Approaching the very real problems of college athletics from a non-market-absolutist perspective yields a very different conclusion. John U. Bacon, an author and college-sports historian, has proposed a different set of changes designed to bring reforming the classic use of the term — reform meaning changes designed to restore the original animating purpose of an institution. The premise of Bacon’s reforms would be to make college athletics work for the vast majority of athletes who want to have the chance to gain a meaningful college degree while playing sports. He would establish minor leagues in football and basketball to create an avenue for the minority of athletes who have no interest in higher education to pursue athletic careers, which works perfectly well in baseball and hockey. You could additionally restore freshman ineligibility (as was the case in football until 1972) and guarantee a five-year scholarship, which would give student athletes a more plausible time-frame to combine studying with athletics. You could institute cost-of-living stipends for all athletes, but since you’d be sharing the money with players across all sports, male and female, the sums would be far lower than the mini-contracts Nocera proposes.

I’d add that unionization has the potential to give college athletes much stronger leverage for obtaining reasonable training hours and better conditions. The market-absolutist critics of college sports have leapt upon the union bandwagon as a handy cudgel against the NCAA, but they aren’t thinking through the implications. Unions are a counter-market institution whose ethos of solidarity would naturally propel them to include all athletes, not just the minority who have market power. It is perverse that a movement purporting to represent the downtrodden victims of college athletics would embrace only those members who have economic power, at the expense of the vast majority who don’t.