By Zach Gorwitz.
Free markets and college football. Deeply embedded into the sociocultural fabric of American life, these two time-honored traditions have been deemed incompatible. Why is scandalous headline after scandalous headline born from the act of receiving compensation for working hard, an act that is laudable in every other profession? The answer lies in one dogmatic, pious, hypocritical, bloated bureaucracy of a governing body: the National Collegiate Athletic Association. However, with targeted new policies, the NCAA and member schools can end this false dichotomy between work and play.
An Environment of Inequity
The collegiate athletic system desperately demands reform. Young men and women are putting in 50-hour workweeks, on top of classes, and all they have to show for it is NCAA President Mark Emmert’s $1.7 million dollar salary. To put it bluntly, the NCAA’s revenues and operating budget thrive off the exploitation and suppression of “student-athletes” with nowhere else to turn for a playing field.
Economically defined, the NCAA is a monopsony. They are the one buyer in a market with unlimited sellers. In other words, if I want to play college basketball, I would have no choice but to seek athletic employment from the NCAA (not to mention grow 8 inches and develop a sweet jump hook). This effectively allows the NCAA to set the price they are willing to pay for the labor of college athletes- which is currently zero dollars. How can the NCAA get away with profiting from merchandise, ticket sales, advertising, and endorsements while the players don’t receive a penny in salary or stipend from the organization?
Easy—lame justifications and obfuscation of the facts. President Emmert is adamant about the classification of “student-athlete”—students who happen to play sports for school pride—remaining true. I would wholeheartedly support such a model, if a pay-for-play model weren’t already in place. The problem is top NCAA executives and head coaches are the ones getting paid, while the players are the ones doing the playing.
At a time when public university tuitions are rising uncontrollably because of a “lack of revenue”, the NCAA and top coaches are living large. “According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent from 2011 to 2012. Average annual pay has ballooned to $1.64 million, an astonishing increase of more than 70 percent since 2006,” writes Dave Zirin of The Nation.
Whenever asked about the notion of paying players, Emmert equivocates. “Why would we want to force someone to go to school when they really don’t want to be there? But if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to be a student,” he posited. Well, Mr. Emmert that’s an awesome question. Maybe you should ask the NFL owners who would never draft a kid straight of high school, or consider consulting your rulebook that requires basketball players to go to college for a year before entering the NBA draft. So, yeah, they don’t really want to be there, but that goes back to our monopsony problem.
The other defense the NCAA and co. commonly turns to is the idea that athletes are receiving a free education. How is this not just compensation, they ask! The Drexel University Department of Sports Management Study did an analysis of the revenues, and the results are shocking.
Most impactful was the discovery that college athletes on full scholarship do not receive a “free ride.” For the 2011-2012 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for each Football Bowl Series (FBS) “full scholarship” athlete was $3,285. Further, the Willamette Sports Law Review writes, “Many African-American student-athletes come from very financially disadvantaged backgrounds and are often much poorer than the general African-American college population. Many student-athletes have the mindset that sports is a means of escaping poverty.” But for athletes who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, a free ride does not stock a refrigerator or buy toothpaste.
So when the NCAA bans taking ANY type of gifts, athletes who have no time for a part time job because of their full-time “student-athlete” status often turn to illegal measures. NFL star Arian Foster’s recent admission that he took money on the side during his time at the University of Tennessee is a prime example.
And just how much are these players worth? The Drexel study finds “If allowed to access the fair market like the NFL and NBA players, the average FBS football and basketball player would be worth approximately $137,357 and $289,031 during the 2011-12 school year, respectively (not counting individual commercial endorsement deals). From 2011-2015, FBS football and men’s basketball players will be forced to forfeit over $6.2 billion.”
Past the lack of just compensation, the NCAA has a host of other silly rules that exacerbate the oppression of “student-athletes”. Players aren’t allowed to profit off their own popularity. Most notably, the NCAA handed Johnny Manziel a half-game suspension for allegedly signing autographs for money (they never proved it). I wonder how much money the NCAA and Texas A&M have made selling t-shirts with “Johnny Football” (his nickname) printed across. Duke alum, Jay Bilas, destroys the NCAA for such hypocrisy via Twitter. And I bet you can guess how much ex-Michigan QB Denard Robinson was paid for being featured on the cover of EA Sports’ NCAA Football 14. This rule robs the players of their right to their own names.
None of this is to say I don’t recognize the NCAA’s arguments. Yes, the revenue-generating sports like football and basketball pay for scholarships in sports like women’s lacrosse and men’s cross-country. Yes, there is something admirable about giving your body, your time, and your heart to a school sport for pride rather than for pay. But, we do not have to sacrifice these intangibles in a pay-for-play model.
Moving the Chains
Change in the NCAA is on the horizon. It is time to pay players- and here’s how. The most effective system will be a limited free market approach. The days of Nick Saban, Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and Coach K using their persuasive powers alone to sign recruits are gone. Instead, coaches will have the added bargaining tool of money-backed contracts. Each sport should have a salary cap. For example, depending on the amount of revenue generated, University of X would have $1 million to spend on their football players. The maximum contract would be $60,000 with a minimum contract of $10,000 per season. In addition to their scholarship, athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds can now live like other students—buying plane tickets back home, catching a concert, etc.
Would this crush the heart of college sports? Of course not. The beauty of college sports is that athletes represent the institution they attend. If I get paid for a work-study position, does that make me any less of a student at Duke? No. I am working to better my university, I just happen to get compensated for it. The NCAA should absolutely remain in place as a quasi-farm system for the big leagues—maintaining the integrity of college sports and the “student-athlete”. Would the proposal create a gap between huge, rich schools and smaller D1 schools? That gap already exists. Florida A&M University is never going to be able to compete with the University of Alabama due to sheer size difference, so why not let the free market pay the players for their work? In fact, the free market (under my proposal) may even lead to a more even distribution of talent as Coach Nick Saban’s proposed salary cap would prevent him from signing exclusively 5-star recruits. Now, those three, four, and five star recruits looking for top salaries and more playing time would go to mid-level schools, increasing parity in college athletes.
The free market advantages do not end there. The movement for player rights is growing, and creating a market based relationship between the NCAA and the players would allow the players to unionize and form an organization that would act as a legitimate counterweight to the NCAA. Just last week, players from major schools like Georgia Tech and Northwestern protested a lack of athlete rights by wearing #APU (All Players Union) on their uniforms. They will be able to demand injury protection, health-care, and four year guaranteed scholarships. As it stands, schools have the ability to drop a player from scholarship, effectively, kicking him or her out of school, if injury strikes or performance is less than satisfactory. A single player can’t fight against this abuse alone. It is past time college athletes had the basic right of representation and due process.
The NCAA would continue to exist as an overarching body—they set the rules, sponsor intercollegiate competitions, determine eligibility, collect advertising money and distribute portions of the profits to the schools, and most importantly provide healthcare for all athletes (with lifetime healthcare provided to players in high-contact sports). The schools would be responsible for all their current activities, with the addition of player salary. To compete in the NCAA, a school would pay a membership fee.
The player’s union is trickier. No player would be forced to join the union. An athlete can compete in NCAA competition without union membership; however, he/she would not be granted the benefits of a minimum salary, healthcare, etc. All the benefits would be hashed out in a collective bargaining agreement between the NCAA and player’s union. Yes, this opens up the possibility of a college sports “lockout”. Will that happen? Not likely. The NCAA is much more intertwined than the NFL, NBA, or NHL. Given that they oversee dozens of sports and substantially more athletes, preference divergence is much higher in the collegiate world than in the pros. As a result, it would take a serious amount of collective action to actually push a lockout through. Further, billions of dollars depend on March Madness, Bowl Games, and the draft process. Players who stand to make millions in after college will think twice before harming their draft prospects.
Yet, women’s volleyball doesn’t generate billions. What happens to the sports previously funded by football and basketball revenues not paid to the players? The sad reality is that they will take a hit. The number of scholarships will probably be reduced. But, the free market will set up an interesting choice for universities and alumni—how valuable is the sport? If determined that it adds value to the university, then it will be funded with school money or an athletics endowment fund established by alumni. If not, then the number of scholarship will be reduced and players will have to pay their own way. In my opinion, this is necessary collateral damage of a new college sports model. Truthfully, revenue-generating sports are bringing the most value to schools. No one black tents for cross-country.
Furthermore, players will finally not be literally banned from college sports if they talk to an agent. The process of choosing a college is confusing, often misleading, and monumental. Under a collective bargaining agreement, athletes will have this same privilege. Making the operation of hiring agents and paying players aboveboard and legitimate will reduce corruption in college sports and actually enhance the NCAA’s business model and educational experience.
A crowning achievement of the free market is its ability to naturally correct for mistakes. The transition from the current NCAA model to fair, limited free market model won’t be easy, but with trust in the invisible hand, along with the guiding hand of a reformed NCAA, we will enjoy a new era of college sports. The NCAA has perpetuated a severe blunder over the years by separating free markets and collegiate athletics; it’s time to fuse these two uniquely American concepts.