The Socialist Utopia of Big-Time College Sports

The college sports industry is worth billions of dollars, but it's run like a bizarro socialist system that enjoys the endorsement of conservatives.

Jan 16 2015, 5:58pm

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As college sports enters its age of reckoning, the industry's leaders are hoping that an appeal to conservative political sentiment can help them resolve the National Collegiate Athletic Association's biggest dilemma: how to keep billions of dollars of revenues under their unilateral control, and out of the hands of the athletes whose work and sweat makes the entire enterprise possible.

Read More: How Cities Use the 'Jock Tax' To Screw Over Athletes

Football is the backbone of campus athletics, and as more players and former players challenge the NCAA's neo-plantation business model, university leaders have taken advantage of the fact that fans of college football tend to be more conservative than fans of other sports. They have used the boogeyman of labor unions--a source of reflexive conservative antipathy, made real by the ongoing effort of Northwestern University football players to unionize--to garner both symbolic and substantive support. There have been sympathetic hearings held by Congressional Republicans. The GOP-dominated Michigan state legislature has voted along party lines to approve a bill that would ban unionization by public university athletes.

But the irony in the Republican support of the current collegiate model is that college sports are actually, at their core, a socialist utopia.

It's a strange utopia, to be sure. There's a capitalist aspect, with universities scrambling to make as much money off sports as possible, and coaches and administrators alike enjoying the spoils of a free, competitive market for their talents. But the rules for the players prohibit competition, emphasize wealth redistribution, and place the monetary burden of those running the system on the taxpayers. Indeed, the collegiate sports economy that many conservatives are fighting to preserve looks very similar to the Thanks, Obama! nanny state they fear the United States is becoming. Consider:

Earning power is stifled in favor of non-monetary benefits

Earning--and keeping--money generated by one's labor is the essence of capitalism, yet the NCAA's main objective is to prevent athletes from doing either. Moreover, the capitalist ideal of incentivizing useful, valuable work through commensurate rewards is nowhere to be found in the amateur sports economy.

Instead, realizing your market value is seen as almost criminal.

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When Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley, arguably the best player in the country at the time, was found to have earned money for signing autographs, the NCAA punished him akin to how an actual petty lawbreaker might be punished ... with community service. As I wrote at the time, the idea that the NCAA should treat a legal, capitalist activity as a societal misdeed is absurd.

The rhetoric in favor of this kind of anti-capitalist behavior bears a striking resemblance to the arguments made by the Santa Claus of socialism, Karl Marx. Don't believe me? Here's former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson--who, not coincidentally, made lots of money off a college sports industry that prohibits market-based pay--arguing at the the Ed O'Bannon federal antitrust trial that college sports are special because athletes don't play for money:

... the idea that college athletes "play for the love of the game" is the core notion of college sports, Pilson said. "To the extent that the viewing public believes in this ideal, paying student-athletes would undermine the cornerstone of the viewing public's belief that student-athletes play for the love of the game" ...

Now compare that to Marx, who also believed that money devalued society's pureness:

.... Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world--both the world of men and nature--of its specific value ...

Schools say that the value of an education is priceless, absolving themselves from the duty of putting a price on what athletes' labor is worth. They claim that athletes are rewarded for their work with a degree, and that opportunity is a better benefit than money. In the real world, of course, many athletes fail to receive degrees, while those who do often get little out of their coursework. Unable to do the work in college classes and without internship opportunities or connections to the business world, a degree for many athletes--whose admissions test scores tend to be at least one standard deviations below the general student body--is nothing more than a piece of paper.

In the O'Bannon trial, Pilson and other association expert witnesses actually claimed that Americans would be turned off by a college sports pay-for-work model, so much so that an end to amateurism would result in television audiences turning off big-time football and basketball altogether.

If that's really the America we live in, then Marx deserves honorary posthumous citizenship. And a NCAA-themed postage stamp.

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Redistribution of wealth

When it comes to wealth redistribution, communist China--note: not particularly communist--has nothing on college sports. Schools prop each other up by spreading the wealth around, and the wealthiest schools are eager to participate in order to maintain a large group of institutions that will support and uphold their rules.

In the Big Ten, the top revenue-generating schools give up their own ticket money to help their conference brethren. Big Ten schools give 35 percent of their gate receipts from league games back to the conference, where they're split among all the member schools. According to the Gazette, top earners Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan all lost the maximum of $961,828.86 from the setup, while bottom dweller Indiana gained $1.722 million. Additionally, the Big Ten shares conference television revenue equally. So while Ohio State is presumably worth far more to television companies than Northwestern, the schools get an equal share of the money (which is expected to balloon to $44.5 million per school per year in 2017-18). The same arrangement is commonplace throughout college sports, and while it's pure From Each According To His Abilities, To Each According To His Needs, it's also a capitalistic fever dream compared to the NCAA system prior to 1984, in which the association had nearly full control over television contracts for schools and divvied up revenues nearly equally among them.

Of course, wealth redistribution doesn't stop with the schools. Athletes themselves are subject to Marxist doctrine, with high-value football and men's basketball players forced to share the revenue they generate with less-valuable athletes in, say, men's wrestling and women's volleyball. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker once noted that this financial transfer has both a racial and a reverse-Robin Hood dimension:

... a large fraction of the Division I players in basketball and football, the two big money sports, are recruited from poor families; many of them are African-Americans from inner cities and rural areas. Every restriction on the size of scholarships that can be given to athletes in these sports usually takes money away from poor athletes and their families, and in effect transfers these resources to richer students in the form of lower tuition and cheaper tickets for games ...

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The NCAA argues that all of this is good, because it ensures a kind of fairness among athletes. In the O'Bannon trial, the association also claimed that allowing football and men's basketball players to be paid for their names, images and likenesses would upset this balance-and while federal judge Claudia Wilken ultimately rejected this contention, it remains a major NCAA talking point. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in July that paying athletes whose likenesses are worth more in the open market should not be permitted, because it would not be fair to the athletes who are worth less.

As economist and VICE Sports contributor Andy Schwarz wrote, this yet again coincides with Marxist ideals, as explained by

... the value of a commodity, as Marx explained in volume one of Capital, can be measured according to the amount of socially necessary labour-time that was invested in its production ...

Contrary to NCAA propaganda, the inability of schools and coaches to show how much they value players through cash offers actually ends up hurting all athletes more than it would hurt them if some were paid more than others. How so? It causes athletes to incentivize the wrong things in their brief careers, often leaving them worse off and playing for a program that doesn't value their work.

Under the current rules, schools can offer scholarships to athletes with very few consequences, which encourages them to offer as many players as possible so as not to have a shortage on their teams. For instance, Alabama might offer a player a scholarship with little intention of ever allowing that player to see the field. The player is simply an insurance policy, who can fill in if everyone else gets injured.

At Alabama, some players are even given "medical scholarships" and taken off the team if they aren't performing up to expectations. According to the Wall Street Journal, it happened 12 times at Alabama between 2007 and 2010, and one of the players essentially forced off the team spoke out against the practice:

"I'm still kind of bitter," said former Alabama linebacker Chuck Kirschman, who took a medical scholarship last year. Mr. Kirschman said Mr. Saban encouraged him to accept the scholarship because of a back problem that he believes he could have played through. "It's a business," Mr. Kirschman said. "College football is all about politics. And this is a loophole in the system."

This is the conservative fear of Marxism in society--that in attempting to increase production and fairness, it ends up hurting both, nurturing a system that works best for a governing body charged with distributing wealth as it pleases.

NCAA president Mark Emmert reportedly made $1.7 million in 2012-13.

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A welfare state that puts the burden on the taxpayers

Scholarships do not cover the full cost of school attendance. As a result, many athletes have very little money to live on-particularly when coursework, the demands of their sports and NCAA restrictions on income and outside jobs give them few ways to earn income.

Major conference schools are considering giving athletes an additional stipend to cover the full cost of attendance. In the meantime, the NCAA's member institutions have done a very good job of making sure they don't spend money on helping poor athletes. According to research by the National College Players Association, 85 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision schools leave their athletes below the poverty line. And that, in turn, forces athletes to rely on taxpayer-funded Pell Grants and other government programs such as food stamps.

According to the NCAA, 18 percent of athletes were on Pell Grant assistance in 2012. The number is likely higher for football players: for example, reports that 51 percent of the University of Alabama athletes receiving $566,495 in Pell Grants in 2012-13 played football. All of this would be okay if schools were cash-strapped and couldn't afford to pitch in, since providing a safety net is what social welfare programs are for. Only here's the thing: schools can afford to pay. Moreover, their amateurism rules are putting athletes into poverty in the first place. Alabama made $143,776,550 in 2013, with a $27 million surplus. The Crimson Tide also spend more than $12 million per year on their coaching staff (more than anyone else in the country) and recently added a waterfall to their locker room. But they can't afford to pay football players an actual competitive wage?

Taxpayers are footing the bill for millions of dollars of unnecessary athlete assistance, all because athletic departments are essentially collecting welfare. That should make any conservative's blood boil.

So why do conservatives love collegiate socialism amateurism so much?

College sports are run like a socialist society. The talking points for keeping it this way are akin to comments made by Karl Marx. So why do conservatives love it?

The easiest answer is that all NCAA change has been tied to the Northwestern football unionization effort, and conservatives will do whatever they can to distance themselves from unions. Moreover, the NCAA has significant lobbying ties to Republicans in Congress, allowing tribal, Red vs. Blue political and cultural identity politics to short-circuit critical thinking about amateurism in general. (As of August, the NCAA had spent $240,000 on lobbying this year).

Conservatives, it seems, are okay with college sports socialism because it pleases their influential friends at the NCAA. And perhaps because preserving the status quo seemingly will ensure that nothing changes about fall Saturdays. Again, this is ironic. A governing body enforces severe marketplace restrictions on its workforce while allowing a small, controlling elite to profit. That's not the conservative ideal--that's essentially how the Soviet Union ran its economy until it collapsed, a system works well for those in power while being grossly unfair for those who make it all work.

If the NCAA was a foreign power, conservatives would be clamoring to bomb it; if amateurism was a health care system, they'd be scrambling to defund and repeal it. Instead, they're busy accepting appointments to the College Football Playoffs selection panel, weirdly and hypocritically content to look the other way.