Five members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team have filed a federal charge of wage discrimination in protest of the lower pay they receive (earning 40 percent of what their male counterparts make). Their claim strikes me as completely justified. The disparity in between NBA and WNBA players may be an unavoidable by-product of market conditions, but U.S. Soccer, a public entity, has no reason to pay them less than it pays men for the same work. But what if we apply the same logic to the debate over paying college athletes?
I have had a running debate with Joe Nocera on this question. There is, we agree, enough money sloshing through the NCAA, funding a coaching arms race and administrative bloat, to set aside some of it to reward student athletes. We disagree on which athletes deserve pay. Nocera believes only football and men’s basketball players do. I believe all college athletes, male and female, do.
Nocera’s reasoning is that only football and men’s basketball produce revenue, therefore only those players deserve money, even if other players put in just as much practice time. My response is that there is no particular reason for the NCAA (which, like U.S. Soccer, is a nonprofit entity) to allow market logic to dictate the treatment of its athletes. I believe in the value of the free market in places where the incentive structure it creates is needed to produce wealth and innovation. But Nocera makes no case that market-based pay is needed to improve the quality of college football and men’s basketball. He is making an argument about fairness. If paying female athletes 40 percent of what male athletes make is unfair — and I think it is — why is paying them 0 percent of what male athletes make acceptable?