Stop Defending the NCAA

The possibility that last year's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel might be suspended for selling his autograph to willing buyers has left more people aware of the grossly exploitative nature of the NCAA Cartel. There's good reason for that. Preventing players from even making deals with third parties to be paid is a particularly indefensible manifestation of the NCAA's rules. And citing "amateurism" in defense of this exploitation is no answer at all. There's certainly no prohibition on reaping commercial rewards from Johnny Manziel's sweat. Television networks, various administrators, and coaches (Manziel's pulls in a cool $2.5 million a year, and he is free to sign as many endorsement deals as he pleases) are able to shovel the money generated by Manziel's plays into their pockets with both hands. The only people who aren't permitted to make as much money as they can are the players literally risking life and limb to generate the revenues. How can this be defended?

This brings us to New York's Jon Chait, who is one of the best political writers in the country ... but is also a Michigan fan and alum with massive blind spot about NCAA. In my favorite example, he argued against allowing players to be directly compensated for their labor by universities because "[t]he women’s cross country team at Connecticut works just as hard as the men’s basketball team" but would be paid less by a free market. The obvious response to this is that this problem exists with every labor market in the history of capitalism. I'm confident that Chait would not be receptive to an argument that because the typical freelancer at a local paper or political blog is paid much less than Richard Cohen—despite working many times as hard and providing much more interesting work—that the only solution is just not to compensate any journalists at all.

Chait has stepped up to defend the ban on third-party compensation that might get Manziel suspended, and I'm afraid he's no more convincing on this example of indefensible NCAA rules. Let's start with the weakest argument first:

The reason college athletics is the sole exception is that it’s college athletics, and not a minor-league sport. The top 500 college players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football. Now, the whole idea of college sports tends to baffle people from the northeast who attended small private schools, but the ideal is very much part of the value of it. People who think college sports is already just a crappier version of pro sports are people who don't like college sports. This also suggests that making college sports into explicitly a minor-league version of the pros would eliminate its appeal.

It is true that I'm only a very causal fan of NCAA football, although (as Supreme Court justices used to say) I'm authorized to say that the two former Oregon undergrads and hardcore NCAA football fans on my other blog endorse my arguments. But this is all beside the point, because the argument cuts both ways. It could be that my arguments against the NCAA cartel are driven by my deep hatred for lukewarmness towards NCAA football. But it's also very possible that Chait's sentimentalism towards NCAA football is causing him to defend arguments that he would immediately ridicule as absurd if they were made in any other context. As it happens, I think that the latter is accurate. But either way the arguments have to rise or fall on the merits.

On the somewhat more substantive point, I also think he's wrong to think the Noble Ideal of Amateurism is responsible for the popularity of NCAA football. First of all, most NCAA sports aren't particularly popular. Second, it's not true that minor-league sports are inherently unpopular—look at Europe. North American minor-league sports tend to be unpopular, but that's because either 1) the leagues are starting from scratch without any traditions fans can relate to, and/or 2) the teams are not really allowed to compete but work solely for the interests of major-league teams. Whether or not NCAA players are paid, college sports won't have either problem.

I find the idea that Chait (or any non-trivial number of fans) will stop caring about Michigan football if players are compensated more fairly implausible in the extreme. For example, did people stop caring about Olympic hockey when (non-Soviet bloc) professionals were allowed to play? Not hardly—the tournaments became so popular even Americans were willing to watch hockey in large numbers. Similarly, fans in Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa and Eugene and Gainesville will continue to watch NCAA football in large numbers even if players are permitted to make money when jerseys with their numbers are sold to fans.

In other words, "amateurism" is to athletics what "states' rights" is to politics. Nobody actually cares about it, but they're willing to pretend to care about it if it allows them to defend an unjust system that can't be defended on the merits.

The more serious part of his argument tries to explain further why gross exploitation is necessary to preserve NCAA football:

What I haven’t seen Irwin or any of the pundits making this same point acknowledge is that changing this rule would change the underlying dynamic in more far-reaching ways. It’s not more wrong for Manziel to sell his autograph than it is for a poor person to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But sometimes rules like this exist for a reason.

The reason rules like that exist is to prevent boosters of the programs from illicitly paying players. The NCAA has rules designed to ensure that college athletes can only get jobs that regular students could also get. You can work as a mover at a furniture store, but you can’t get paid $100,000 to play for some corporate softball team. If you allowed athletes to sell their fame, pretty soon every major college that competes in high-level sports would have a network of boosters who turn “selling autographs” into a loophole for buying up recruits. (Irwin — again like many others — brings up the example of the Olympics, which relaxed its amateurism rules, but the Olympics doesn’t have the same booster-recruiting competition dynamic.)

The first thing to note is that it's not a very attractive argument even if one accepts the factual premises. Essentially, it amounts to an assertion that college players should be exploited because fans like Chait find the results more aesthetically appealing. That's not much of a defense.

Even leaving that aside, the argument is wrong in multiple other ways as well. The idea that players should be massively undercompensated to ensure that the best players don't end up on the most powerful teams runs into the obvious problem that the most desirable recruits already generally end up on the most powerful teams. NCAA football is far, far, far, less competitively balanced than professional sports. Most programs have no chance of competing for a BCS slot for the foreseeable future. The best teams play only a small handful of games a year that are remotely competitive. Last year's Super Bowl champion lost six out of 20 games and won seven more by a converted touchdown or less (including a three-point squeaker against one of the worst teams in the league.) Last year's NCAA champ was 13-1, all but two of its wins were by more than a touchdown, and the majority of its games were completely uncompetitive (including the national title game.) This is hardly atypical.

Indeed, it's overwhelmingly likely that allowing boosters to pay players would increase competitive balance. Under a more free-market system, boosters of a perennial doormat could entice premium talent by opening up their checkbooks. But under the current system where schools can't compete for players on price, a historically weak program has little chance of winning a serious recruiting war with an Alabama or Florida or Oregon. If you're getting the same scholarship anywhere, you're going to to go with the program where you're most likely to win.

This isn't a purely theoretical argument, either. Chait's arguments have been made by apologists for sports-labor exploitation for time out of mind. The owners of major-league baseball swore in the '60s and '70s that if they were required by free agency to pay players more than a fraction of their market value that competitive balance would vanish and the sport would be destroyed. In fact, competitive balance increased after the players won free agency rights. Whenever you hear the phrase "competitive balance" being invoked, there's a roughly 99 percent chance that it's being invoked by someone who favors more money being put into the pockets of the owners. The NCAA is just a particularly extreme example, only substitute "coaches" and "bureaucrats" rather than "owners."

Which brings us back to the biggest problem with the Noble Ideals of Amateurism—they're a complete fraud. There's no serious principle of "amateurism" operating in a context where even a legendarily incompetent coach can earn $2.5 million a year. Chait half-acknowlegdes this, allowing that "the college-sports ideal is also under a pretty serious threat from the rampant marketization of college sports." But that horse is two continents over from the barn. The demand for NCAA sports means that large amounts of money are going to be generated; the only question is who will get it. To allow everyone but the players to make money is both immoral and based on empirically erroneous premises.

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