One of the problems with college athletics is their highly secretive nature (as Penn State and Syracuse have revealed). This secrecy is driven by the economic model of college sports — powerful independent organizations parallel to universities with their own cashflow under the banner of “amateur athletics,” with no accountability to anyone except the NCAA, as toothless (and incompetent) a watchdog as there ever was.
How do we solve this? I propose two solutions, each probably equally implausible.
1. The Free-Market Solution: This is the solution pushed by Taylor Branch (among others) in his long-form Atlantic piece. In short, pay the players. College sports operate in a weird cartel system, in which coaches are compensated in the tens of millions, universities make substantial revenue from football and basketball, and players make… well, nothing. Labor is not compensated appropriately for the value put in, and at far lower rates than they would receive on the open market. (Cam Newton’s salary at Auburn? $25,000 (cost of a full academic scholarship with book stipend). Newton’s salary at Carolina? $4 million.) This distorted labor market hurts the players, because they are both replaceable and cheap. If colleges had to compensate players with market wages, players could also unionize in order to demand rights collectively, particularly health benefits. Plenty of students work part-time or full-time as university employees; the players here would be no different.
Yes, players should be getting their degrees and using their scholarships, but you try learning when football practice starts at 5 and ends at 9, beginning in July and ending in May (if ever). The working conditions essentially make it quite difficult to achieve academic success.
2. The Pure Amateur Solution: My beef with the Branch free-market approach is that it further elevates the money and power of the athletics department, which I think still creates a tail-wagging-the-dog problem. Insular and powerful sports teams would still hold outsize power on campus because of their outsize money.
My ideal solution would be a return to truly pure amateurism — no more academic scholarships, and athletics departments folded back into the academic part of the university. Rather than being an independent entity reportable only to the university president (and sometimes not even), they would be collapsed into the basic student activities side. Sports should be a part of the academic experience, but they should not be the dominating one. Consider the Ivy League, which has eliminated all academic scholarships, yet continues to admit excellent athletes (dumb though they may be, see this guy). Even Vanderbilt, toiling away in the SEC, has no athletics department, yet plays the big boys close in football and does quite well in basketball.
Of course, this solution then permits the major sports leagues to start recruiting right out of high school, which I’m actually OK with. At least they’ll get paid, and the university institution won’t become subservient to the sporting one. At the same time, baseball, which already works like this, has plenty of shady practices. (Anyone who saw that scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane forgoes his scholarship for a chance in the bigs knows how cringe-inducing these conversations can be.) I wonder whether the current system (or a free-market system described above) is any better; college players inside the bubble of athletics are no wiser than a high school senior in making major life decisions.
I’m open to ideas, but there can be no moral justification for the status quo, in which college sports are money-makers for universities, coaches, sponsors, and merchandisers, with rabid demanding fanbases, while leaving the actual players as mere meat to be churned through the machine.
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