Ten years ago, Taylor Branch wrote an Atlantic essay titled “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch expressed what was already a rapidly forming consensus: that college sports were exploitative, and the solution was to unleash the market forces that the NCAA had artificially curtailed. “The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” he argued, colluding to suppress fair market wages.
Branch’s analysis has framed almost every piece of social commentary I have read on college athletics. It inspired a lawsuit against the NCAA that, as Branch predicted, succeeded. Indeed, Brett Kavanaugh’s widely hailed reasoning closely echoed Branch’s prose. “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.”
In stark contrast to the polarization that is consuming everything else, elite opinion on college athletics is now defined by a broad accord. Socialists with red-rose Twitter accounts were cheering Kavanaugh’s defense of unbridled free enterprise. The problem was a cartel, and the solution is the market. The libertarian consensus has prevailed. Profitable college sports — that is, big-time football and men’s basketball teams — are now bidding for players on the open market by crafting Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) deals that function as conduits for boosters to pay openly.
Now that we are living in the world they have created, they deserve some time to see how the system works. Perhaps they will consider it a success. But I suspect otherwise. I believe marketization of college sports will not solve (and may worsen) the very real harms caused by the system, and that real reform will require just the opposite: socialization.
In some important ways, the new system represents a real improvement. The absurd old system where famous stars couldn’t afford to go to a restaurant wealthier students could walk into without a second thought has disappeared. NIL deals have legalized transfer payments from affluent adults to not-yet-affluent college students that enhances the welfare of both parties.
But the limits and drawbacks of the libertarian approach will soon become glaring. A market-based system will lavish the greatest reward on those with the least need, while doing little or nothing to alleviate the burdens on the vast majority of the athletes in the system.
In the short time since the NCAA allowed NIL deals, this is already evident. The market value of college athletes is overwhelmingly concentrated in football and men’s basketball. Indeed, even within those two sports, market value is distributed in a highly unequal fashion; the players in those sports who have market value to their schools are mostly ones with strong prospects of signing future contracts with the NFL or NBA, which means that their NIL payments largely accrue to people who will become rich soon anyway.
But most college athletes have negative market value. Most sports lose money and rely on cross subsidies from football and men’s basketball. And football and men’s basketball recruits who don’t pan out will find themselves occupying a coveted roster spot that their coach would rather give to a new prospect. Players like that have been increasingly abused by their coaches, who all but order them to transfer out of a school they might have hoped to graduate from.
Athletes at nonrevenue sports also, meanwhile, have had their training requirements ratcheted up to levels that a generation ago only the most elite athletes were expected to meet. The minimum commitment to hold on to an athletic scholarship has become a full-time job. Thirty years ago, the Michigan Daily had a couple varsity athletes on staff. It is difficult to imagine today that any big-ten varsity athlete could find time to handle school and a second extracurricular activity.
Salaries for administrators and, especially, coaches in moneymaking sports have swollen to indefensible levels in recent years. Just over the last week, the football-coaching market went completely haywire. Michigan State offered coach Mel Tucker a staggering contract worth $95 million over a decade, not including a country-club membership and recreational access to a private plane. That jaw-dropping offer turned out to set the floor for the open market, which new hires at more competitive programs like USC and Louisiana State quickly exceeded.
The money to fund these exorbitant contracts comes mostly from private donors. The problem is not, as so many suggest, a dollar-for-dollar trade-off with academics. Rich donors open their wallets to hire a football coach because they care more about football than the English department. The problem, rather, is that the staggering levels of money involved increase the pressure on coaches to win rather than protect the interests of their players. It is much harder to make ethical decisions about resting injured players, or keeping underperfoming athletes on scholarship, when you have millions of dollars at stake.
If you view the free market as morally sacrosanct, then this is all perfectly fine: The problem was a market-inhibiting cartel that suppressed wages, and now workers are receiving their deserved compensation.
If, on the other hand, you don’t subscribe to libertarian assumptions about markets, you might object. The new world of college athletics is more lucrative for a handful of players and a handful of coaches, but no better for the rest. Indeed, the pressure of money upon the system seems destined at some point to break it all apart; the costs of running a football program and a men’s basketball program that can compete with the highest levels is going to grow unbearable for programs that don’t have access to unlimited booster funds.
The kinds of reforms I’ve envisioned would run in the opposite direction of every trend in college sports. Universities would commit to erecting bulwarks against the vast tide of marketization, with the goal of rolling it back. I’ve suggested some of these counter-market reforms before: Give athletes labor unions, which would give them bargaining power to limit their hours to training and ensure their ability to benefit from the educational and social opportunities of college, should they desire. Grant athletes five-year, guaranteed scholarships so they can’t be cut from the team and lose their scholarship simply for failing to be as good a player as their coach hoped. Redistribute a bigger share of the proceeds of the profitable sports to athletes — all athletes, not just the (male) players in moneymaking sports. The NBA should end its ban on drafting players out of high school, and both it and the NFL should expand developmental leagues for athletes who want to pursue professional sports careers without having to attend school, or pretend to.
Eventually, colleges could impose caps on coaching salaries. Why should coaches make more money than professors? Yes, a system like that would mean college football and basketball would no longer be able to compete for coaching talent with the pros. It would instead have to draw from coaches who just want to mentor college students. Would that be worse? That’s a matter of opinion. I think it would be better.
The concept of reforming college sports by pushing back against marketization hasn’t had a place at the table for a long time. I was once invited to participate in a debate between advocates of paying players and supporters of the NCAA. When I told the debate organizers I didn’t support either side, and had a completely different suite of reforms I would advocate, they rescinded the invitation. I don’t blame them. On the contrary, I understand completely: It’s perfectly natural to stage a debate that follows the contours of the existing argument, rather than letting it be hijacked by idiosyncratic views that haven’t gained any traction.
But we are now, or soon will be, past the time when the reform position can be dominated by libertarian sentiment. The marketizers have won. The players — at least the ones with market value — are getting paid. The market barriers are disappearing. The “reform” label has been held by people whose ideas are now the status quo. If we find ourselves unsatisfied with the system they have built, our ideas for changing it will have to come from elsewhere.