college sports

Fixing College Sports: Why Paying Student Athletes Won’t Work

The University of Michigan plays Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 26.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State has brought out the usual procession of critics asserting that the real lesson here is the essential evil of college athletics. In the New York Times, Joe Nocera assailed “the essential hypocrisy of the enterprise.” Matthew Yglesias argued that coaching college sports is pretty much the same thing as raping children: “using positions of power to mistreat young people for personal benefit is what the job is all about.” Taylor Branch, author of a recent, vast treatise in the Atlantic Monthly arguing in favor of paying college athletes, offered a tenuous connection between his proposal and the scandal.

The notion that we should pay college athletes has been floating around for years, and it can attach itself to any sordid event involving college sports. The trouble is that, while college athletics does need reform, paying players bears no relationship to the purported goal of helping protect college athletes. The abuses in college athletics – and they are real – stem from the growing imposition of market forces. Institutionalizing that ethos would almost certainly make all those abuses worse. That’s why the constantly expressed demand that we put college athletes on professional salary is so ill-formed. It is not so much a plan as an expression of free-floating contempt for college sports.

Branch’s mega-essay, a litany of every bad thing that has happened to anybody involved in a college football, baseball, or basketball team, is now the urtext of the movement. Yet it suffers from the same problem afflicting all such proposals: It rests upon generalities, failing to explain just how a plan to turn college athletes into professionals would work. Branch’s essay is 14,000 words long, but he devotes just one paragraph to explaining how the proposal to pay players would be handled, and in it he simply throws up his hands and admits we’d have to figure it all out:

A thousand questions lie willfully silenced because the NCAA is naturally afraid of giving “student-athletes” a true voice. Would college players be content with the augmented scholarship or allowance now requested by the National College Players Association? If a player’s worth to the university is greater than the value of his scholarship (as it clearly is in some cases), should he be paid a salary? If so, would teammates in revenue sports want to be paid equally, or in salaries stratified according to talent or value on the field? What would the athletes want in Division III, where athletic budgets keep rising without scholarships or substantial sports revenue?

It isn’t simply a matter of hammering out the details. When you try to work out a plan like this, the concept quickly falls to pieces.

Branch’s article, like most arguments for paying college athletes, focuses in great detail on the profits of television networks and apparel companies. But paying players wouldn’t affect that revenue – the networks’ cut is the networks’ cut. The question is how to allocate the money that the university receives in ticket sales and television dollars. The sums are non-trivial: A big-time program like the University of Texas football team can generate more than $90 million a year in revenues, and still have nearly $70 million left after expenses. But even a glance at where the money goes shows the absurdity of this notion. The big-time sports programs that bring in more than they cost (usually football and men’s basketball) use the surplus money to fund sports that don’t (swimming, track, etc.) To the extent that there is “profit” in this arrangement, the man in the top hat and monocle who’s siphoning it off is … the gymnastics squad.

This basic conceptual problem casts light on the practical problem: Which athletes deserve to get paid? The general rationale for paying big-ticket college athletes is that they are being used (to fund the gymnastics program, but never mind) and discarded. They spend four years toiling away at athletics, barely cracking a book, and then are sent out into the world with no degree and no skills.

In point of fact, that is not generally true. College scholarship athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body. It is true, however, that you can find some programs that do an especially bad job of educating their players. These are the programs cited by proponents of paying players, and this is where their indictment of college athletics comes closest to describing reality. The University of Memphis men’s basketball program went through several years last decade in which it graduated zero players.

I suppose you could look at Memphis and conclude that the players, as a matter of social justice, ought to receive economic compensation since they’re not getting college degrees. But if the Memphis men’s basketball players receive paychecks, why shouldn’t the women’s basketball team? The women, after all, probably spend as much time on basketball as their male counterparts. It is true that the male players draw much larger crowds of paying customers and television viewers. So we could conclude that the men’s team is the victim of exploitation, generating a large revenue surplus for the use of others, and the female team the beneficiaries of a subsidy.

If you’re of a right-wing economic bent, you could think of the male players as titans of capitalism and the female players as welfare freeloaders. That is the ideological thrust of at least one of Branch’s most sympathetic sources. “Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes,” the former quasi-agent Sonny Vaccaro tells Branch, sounding much like Paul Ryan.

Such reasoning is sensible if you regard the ability to produce market value as the sole arbiter of social value. But it’s a strange credo for a reform movement putatively concerned with protecting young people from exploitation. And it bears little relation to reality: Go ask a female basketball player if she’s exploiting her male counterparts, or ask a quarterback if he is being economically victimized by the volleyball team.

If it were generally true that college sports is a crass mutual exploitation arrangement, in which athletes generate revenue for the school in return for a shot at professional lucre, then how could you explain walk-ons? These are players who put in the same work as scholarship athletes, and don’t get a scholarship in return. How could you explain the athletes at the lower levels of competition, who know they’ll never make the pros but put in the same work anyway? There’s no compelling moral reason to pay an athlete less merely because he doesn’t command a large enough fan base. We could put all college athletes, male and female, across all sports, on salary. But what would be the point?

Branch juxtaposes the poverty of some college athletes against the money brought into sports. He notes that “impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home.” Is it unfair that impoverished football players cannot afford a bus trip home or occasional entertainment? Yes, it is. But it seems to me that any college student ought to be able to have those things. Why should we give them to football players and not to cross-country runners, or to non-athletes? It would seem that a basic stipend for low-income college students addresses this problem much better than paying men’s basketball and football players, regardless of need. As it happens, the NCAA voted in October to allow schools to pay athletes $2,000 a year to reflect the “true cost of attendance,” which would seem to partially address this problem – even if it unfairly ignores the non-athletes.

The vast majority of college athletes are in college because they want a college degree. Even among the tiny minority of athletes who have a shot at playing sports professionally, most, from what I can tell from following college sports closely, understand the value of a college degree as a fallback or to help them after a hoped-for sports career. College athletes are not immune to the general societal understanding that a college education has a lot of value.

If the problem is that a bunch of football and men’s basketball players aren’t getting useful colleges degrees, rather than pay them money, why don’t we …  help them get college degrees?

For instance, one obvious reform is to make all freshmen ineligible for athletics, as they were until three decades ago. This would give them a year to get acclimated to college academic work while establishing the appropriate priorities. (Right now, a college freshman can become a famous football star before he’s ever set foot in a classroom.)

A second, related reform would be to guarantee five years of free-ride tuition to every scholarship athlete who maintains a clean record – the automatic red-shirt season plus four more years of eligibility. This kind of guarantee used to be unnecessary. But in recent years, a growing number of programs, mostly in the Southeast Conference, have begun shoving players out the door because they turn out not to be as good as the coaches hoped, thus freeing up extra scholarships on the roster. This is a shocking and indefensible breach of the traditional norm, under which the school accepted the risk that a promising high-school athlete might not pan out. For what it’s worth, the “reform” of applying the logic of capitalism to college sports, and paying players on the basis of their economic value, would deepen the incentive to cast aside players who have little value.

Finally, remember when I wrote earlier that nobody at the universities is profiting off the athletes? That isn’t quite true. Coaches have seen their salaries explode to obscene levels. Thirty years ago, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, paid Bo Schembechler — already established as one of the greatest football coaches in history — $110,000 a year. This last year, it signed relatively unheralded newcomer Brady Hoke, who had been making $700,000 at a second-tier school and accepted the Michigan position without asking about pay. He was bumped up to over $3 million a year anyway. On Monday, Michigan’s bitter (and recently vanquished) rival Ohio State said its new football coach, Urban Meyer would make at least $26.65 million over six years. Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee called the contract “a mark of our dignity and nobility.”

The explosion in college coaching pay reflects both market competition and a simple desire by schools to use an astronomical salary to signal their coach’s excellence. So why not phase in a cap on coaches’ pay? Sure, some of the best may go to the pros. But there are a fixed number of professional coaching jobs. And if you lose the most mercenary coaches and keep only those who care about coaching college students, all the better.

The scholarship athletes I’ve known don’t see themselves as exploited workers. They enjoy the camaraderie and the sport itself, and appreciate having access to a free education. Major college sports have grown more mercenary. The answer is to brake that trend, not to accelerate it.

Why Paying Student Athletes Won’t Work