Photo: Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
the national interest

College Sports Is a Failed Experiment in Anarcho-capitalism

The NCAA has all the money and none of the sense.

Photo: Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

College sports conferences have been breaking up and consolidating for decades. But last week’s revelation that Oregon and Washington are defecting from the Pac-12, a West Coast conference, to the Big Ten, once based in the Midwest, represents an inflection point. The Pac-12, now reduced to just four members, is no longer viable. The Big Ten (now with 18 members and counting) and the Southeastern Conference are two super-leagues that have diluted their old regional identities to obtain television deals that will give their programs far more money than any rival. That reality, combined with new rules allowing the payment of players, will permit the two super-leagues to outcompete every other program.

In response to the threat of permanent obsolescence, every major athletic program that doesn’t belong to the two super-leagues is eyeing the exits. The old system of geographic conferences, rooted in rivalries dating back a century or more, is coming apart.

What has happened to college sports is the culmination of a period of accelerating marketization. The logic of untrammeled capitalism — with the invisible hand of the market dictating every decision and lacking any regulatory restraints — has flattened everything in its path, including cherished cultural traditions and the human needs of its workforce. Unregulated markets were supposed to liberate sports from its retrograde past but have instead produced something ghastly.

The old system of college athletics rested upon a fading myth that college athletes are pure amateurs, conceptually no different from varsity athletes playing for their high-school squad. The system had plenty of exploitation and hypocrisy, and its legitimacy disintegrated to the point where nothing — not university presidents, not the sports media, and certainly not the hollow shell of the NCAA — could defend it.

There were many critiques of the old regime, but the one that prevailed over the past decade and guided the future of the institution of college sports was a libertarian one. This belief system held that the primary flaw in the college sports model was that it artificially constrained market forces. “The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” wrote Taylor Branch in a seminal 2011 essay. That critique helped inspire a wave of criticism in the media and legal challenges to the NCAA system, in which coaches and administrators earned skyrocketing salaries while players earned nothing.

The critics were right to condemn a system in which more and more money was sloshing through and none of it was going to the players. But the solution the critics settled upon was to intensify the market dynamics. Simply removing the barriers to paying players, they believed, would bring fairness.

Beginning in 2019, colleges started to legalize payments to players. This did succeed in bestowing riches on the most marketable college athletes — mostly high-ranked male football and basketball players and a handful of female athletes, especially ones willing to sell their sex appeal. But most college athletes have little to no market value, either because they play a sport that loses money or they haven’t developed athletically. Some have functionally negative market value: They consume a valuable scholarship their coach would rather give a new recruit who might blossom into a star.

Of course, if your only problem with the old system was that the biggest stars in the most popular sports weren’t getting rich, then the problem has been solved. But if your complaint was that college athletes on the whole were being exploited, then the problem has not been solved at all and by some measures may be getting worse.

The imbalance in power dynamics between coaches and players has not improved since before payments were legalized. The Northwestern football program revealed a horrific hazing culture, a tool used by coaches to discipline players through fear and abuse. The players were free to quit, of course, but that would mean losing their Northwestern scholarship and a chance for playing time in the Big Ten.

A generation ago, athletes were generally expected to retain their scholarships if they followed team rules and stayed academically eligible. That norm has disappeared recently, as coaches feel free to shove players off a scholarship to make way for new prospects if they don’t develop as hoped. Colorado’s new football coach, Deion Sanders, threw dozens of players off their scholarships at once, taking a practice of cutting players to an extreme that has become normalized. No doubt some of those players had friends in Boulder or wanted to graduate from there but were now being functionally expelled from school and forced to move because they weren’t good enough at football. The vast majority of college football players are now interchangeable cogs, as subject to the whims of their boss as were immigrant workers in a 19th-century factory.

And now, finally, the fans are experiencing in full this turn toward unbridled capitalism. Conferences have added and subtracted members as long as they have existed, but only in recent years have they begun to act like corporate raiders. Their strategies are now driven entirely by the logic of television contracts, and the networks designing those contracts have little sense of the regional ties that form the backbone of college sports culture.

Television executives in New York may grasp that creating new matchups between teams with little previous history has a novelty appeal to viewers. But the sport’s long-term value lies not in novelty but in familiarity — rivalries taking shape over generations. Many of the deepest rivalries have begun to disappear: Nebraska-Oklahoma, Penn State–Pittsburgh, and Kansas-Missouri games are no longer played because the schools have changed conferences in search of bigger television deals. Many more such contests are likely to disappear in the coming years.

Whatever financial logic has compelled the Oregon Ducks to stop playing their rivals from Oregon State so they can fly to Piscataway, New Jersey, and play Rutgers instead has no bearing on the actual value college athletes or fans place on their sports. The new megaleagues will be too engorged to have real conference champions: There will be too many teams in each league and too few games to fairly crown a winner.

The new wave of conference realignment follows the relentless logic of market competition, in which every conference seeks to add new markets — and if it hurts their competitors, all the better. The flight of USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon destroys more value for the Pac-12 than it creates for the Big Ten. But there’s nothing stopping the stronger conferences from pursuing a beggar-thy-neighbor strategy.

As it stands, the Big Ten and the Southeast Conference are “winning” this contest by crushing every other rival in the delusional belief that there will be stable equilibrium in a landscape where most of even the biggest sports schools are at a hopeless financial disadvantage. In the long run, a sport that allows programs to win championships by paying multiple times the salaries for talent is going to run out of opponents to beat up on. Of course, the long run isn’t Fox’s problem as long as it can draw enough advertisers over the next decade.

A rational system would ensure some reasonable balance of power between conferences, preserve traditional rivalries, minimize travel for players, and secure the existence of viable leagues in every region. But a rational system requires some central authority capable of making strategic decisions in service of the greater good. The NCAA currently has barely any power to enforce its own rules, let alone direct the actions of conferences and programs.

College athletics has decided — or effectively decided by dint of failing to decide anything — to govern itself according to anarcho-capitalist principles. The result, predictably, is vast riches for the few and misery for the many.

College Sports Is a Failed Experiment in Anarcho-capitalism