Would Paying the Athletes Harm College Sports? That is the Wrong Question.

Many of my friends are discussing Taylor Branch’s fantastic Atlantic piece indicting the NCAA. David Brooks offers a sentimental defense of the amateur ideal today.

I wouldn’t compare college sports to a plantation, as Branch and his sources occasionally do. Yet it’s clear that the NCAA is a cartel that presents self-serving rationalizations for policies that prevent young athletes from being paid what the market will bear for the services they render.

And in many concrete circumstances, the result is hypocritical, unfair, and exploitative. What justification is there for preventing a young person from selling his own autographed jersey or from profiting from his likeness in a video game? What justification is there for policies that prevent young athletes from employing agents to negotiate with professional teams before deciding whether to return senior year? It would be one thing if such rules were determined through a legitimate collective bargaining mechanism. They are not. They are arbitrarily determined by the NCAA to advance the interests of colleges, coaches, television sponsors, fans, and its other stakeholders.

Many people claim that college sports works better under this system than it would under a system in which the stars are openly paid. They note that paying college athletes raises difficult logistical questions: Who would be eligible for workers compensation? Would there be efforts to equalize pay across sports and between men and women? Does the economic value of a full scholarship exceed a fair market wage? Is the answer to this question different for men’s football or women’s soccer?

I don’t know the answers here. I do know that these are the wrong questions. Even if rules promoting amateur competition make things simpler, even if restrictions on player compensation have clear social benefits, we don’t generally accept such arguments to constrain people’s ability to negotiate the terms of their employment.

Suppose I could present convincing analysis that American public health would be enhanced by a national ceiling on nurses’ pay. Maybe I could even argue that dampening the commercial pressures would enhance important non-market values to save lives and improve public health. Nobody would regard these findings as providing a legal sanction or a policy justification for allowing hospitals to establish some national organization that fined nurses who accepted higher pay or gifts from a University of Chicago Medical Center booster. We would see it for what it was.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.