How to Pay College Athletes Without Ruining NCAA Sports

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In 2016, the U.S. Women’s soccer team filed suit against U.S. Soccer for pay discrimination. U.S. Soccer was paying male players far more, and to make it all the more galling, the women were winning a lot more matches. The source of the disparity was not a conscious decision to value women less, but the logic of capitalism. Men’s soccer commands a bigger, and therefore more profitable, audience than women’s soccer. And so, despite all the legal complications of the case, the dispute ultimately boils down to whether the market should dictate the final word. Should U.S. Soccer pay male athletes more simply because men’s soccer commands more market power? Or should it follow the logic of equal pay for equal work?

The episode is worth bearing in mind when we consider the question of paying college athletes. College sports is badly in need of reform, but the problem that has captured the attention of the national media has been defined in a peculiar and narrow way: Mistreatment has largely meant profitable athletes who are being denied their true market value. Those are the athletes who receive the most attention, especially in high-profile events like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But those problems are also anomalous and in many ways disconnected from the very real struggles faced by college athletes.

The assumption that the suppression of the free market is the problem, and the unleashing of the market the solution, has pervaded the discussion so thoroughly that it is rarely even brought up as a live question.

“Athletes should be able to realize their fair market value while they’re in school, just like anyone else,” argues Joe Nocera, who has crusaded on this topic, and who identifies the current scandal of illicit payments to men’s basketball recruits as “what happens when you try to suppress the market.” Deadspin’s Patrick Hruby considers the question of how a payment scheme for college athletes might work to be inconceivably dense, because the answer is obvious. “Nobody asks how’s it going to work when it comes to, say, paying dentists. Or investment bankers. Or programmers …” he explains, “The very notion of coming up with a complicated, centralized set of rules dictating how much plumbers can earn and under what circumstances they can earn it would be un-American and completely fucking ridiculous besides.”

If you are a philosophically committed libertarian, there is no need to explore this question any further. Individuals are morally entitled to earn what the market will bear, and any mechanism that infringes on the natural market distribution is inherently suspect. There’s not much need to know anything else about the situation. But if, like me, you’re not a laissez-faire absolutist but instead see markets as a tool that work well in some circumstances but not others, then you would need to know more about the specifics of the situation before deciding.

This may sound like a completely abstract discussion of a concrete problem with obvious human consequences. But it’s impossible to come up with a solution for reforming college athletics without first deciding what problem you want to solve. Is the problem artificial barriers are preventing people from capturing their market value? Or is the problem college athletes are being overworked and under-rewarded? Those two different conceptions of the problem lead to very different kinds of solutions.

The gender-equity issue is one immediate illustration. A scheme to pay college athletes on the basis of their market value will reward only male athletes. With very few exceptions, money-earning college sports are limited to football and men’s basketball. If market principles are your moral guidelines, then you have no problem with universities paying men’s basketball players but not women’s basketball players. Market principles would also dictate paying marching-band members and cheerleaders, who work hard and whose performances play an important role in drawing spectators. But if you think college athletes should be paid on the basis of the work they put in, then you’re going to pay all the athletes, not just the ones who participate in sports that have attracted profit-sustaining fan bases.

Would it be good to squeeze more money out of the bloated college sports administration and other parasites, like absurdly overcompensated conference commissioners, and redistribute it to the student-athletes? Why yes, it would. If I could set Jim Delany’s salary, I would pick a number somewhere between minimum wage and zero. If you’re dividing the stipends among all the athletes, though, the scale of the payment is going to be far more modest than the professionalization some people are imagining.

The larger conceptual problem is that the vast majority of college athletes do not have market value. That category includes virtually all female athletes, virtually all male athletes in sports other than football and basketball, and even many football and men’s basketball players. Indeed, they have negative market value. College athletes are recruited out of high school as prospects, and a huge percentage of those prospects never pan out. Once those players have shown that they aren’t going to develop as the coaches hoped, they become a liability, taking up a precious roster spot that could instead be given to an incoming recruit who has a chance to become a star.

For this majority of student athletes with zero or negative market value, introducing market dynamics into college sports is not going to help. Indeed, the marketization of the sport has already hurt many of them. Some of the most outrageous and heart-rending stories of mistreatment of student athletes are those who were recruited, given promises of stardom, and then run off the roster when they failed to perform as hoped.

The context for the pressures facing college athletes is that high-level sports has become far more intense over the last generation. The change is apparent even if you simply compare the habits of kids today who play travel sports and do intense personal training and skill development with the Little League and pickup games their parents did. When I attended the University of Michigan in the 1990s, I knew scholarship athletes who had enough extra time, in addition to sports and school, to also be staff writers for the student paper (which was close to a full-time job). Today athletes in every sport spend an average of 40 hours a week or more practicing and training. Surveys of college athletes found that what they mainly want is more time for socializing and school.

The solutions that offer the most benefit to college athletes involve rolling back on the all-consuming market power of sports, rather than unleashing it. Those ideas include:

1. Lift the NBA one-and-done rule. Disproportionate attention has focused on the relatively small number of basketball players who are forced into college for a year, and have no intention of graduating, or using their education for any purpose other than maintaining technical eligibility. Most of the rage at this absurd state of affairs has focused on the NCAA. “If you look at the pros and the cons, college basketball is a big con,” Kylia Carter, the mother of Duke freshman Wendell Carter, tells William Rhoden.

But it wasn’t Duke or the NCAA that made her son spend a year on campus when he wanted to play professionally. The NBA has a rule barring players under 19 years old. The solution is for the NBA to open more professional paths for men’s basketball players who don’t want to attend college. That would end the one-and-done farce. Just this week, top high-school recruit Darius Bazley announced that, rather than spend a year playing college basketball, he would go straight to the NBA’s developmental league. “I’m aware that this might start a trend and that’s one of the reasons why I am doing this,” he explained. “Someone has to start the fire.”

Professional football can follow suit (and there is also some movement to do so). Keeping college sports as an avenue for athletes who also want to pursue a college education will be better for college sports. And it will also require that the NCAA create more protections so that players can actually fulfill this promise.

2. Universal stipends for college athletes. The U.S. Soccer case shows how difficult it would be for universities to justify a scheme that pays some athletes more than others. The payments should be shared equally, on the basis of hours of effort put in, not on how many people an athlete gets to watch them on television. Band members and cheerleaders should qualify, too.

3. Guaranteed five-year scholarships. The old four-year model envisioned sports as an extracurricular activity that could be performed on the side while a student studied. The demands of sports make this difficult for many. Every scholarship athlete should be guaranteed five years of free tuition and room and board during which they can have four years of athletic eligibility. The scholarship should only be revokable in cases of proven misconduct or academic failure. No pushing kids out of school because they failed to develop athletically.

4. Unions for college athletes. We have an institution that specializes in bargaining for humane work conditions and protection of vulnerable employees: unions. Northwestern football players tried to form a union, and were denied by the National Labor Relations Board. But some union-like organization could be formed in place of a formal one, and it would take on the role of collective bargaining. That would help ensure that as much of the surplus revenue generated by profitable college sports is shared by college students, rather than lavishly paid administrators and coaches.

The fixation with markets as the solution to college sports has always been strange. Sports in general have never operated along purely market principles, even at the professional level. (Only professional sports can deny a person the right to work in the city of their choice simply because a firm in another city has drafted the exclusive right to make them go live and work there.) College sports are especially un-conducive to market principles. They didn’t evolve to fill a market need but a social one, and the vast majority of its participants do not serve any capitalistic function. Unless you believe the expansion of market forces is everywhere and always a virtuous development, the proper response to the encroachment of market dynamics into college sports is to push back.

How to Pay College Athletes Without Ruining NCAA Sports