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The NCAA's Economic Exploitation of Athletes Won't Be Solved By More Of The Same

Defenders of college sports amateurism argue that prohibiting market compensation for campus athletes preserves academic "values." Our resident economist calls bullshit.

by Andy Schwarz
Oct 20 2015, 3:28pm

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent New Yorker article titled "Why N.C.A.A. Athletes Shouldn't Be Paid," law professor Ekow N. Yankah provides a concise diagnosis of the problem of economic exploitation in college sports: There is a class of young adults, "disproportionately black, many from poor and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds." These young men are victims of "exploitation," and the author suggests that said exploitation may be driven by—or at least allowed to persist—because of racism.

So far, so good. Only now consider Yankah's solution: Lock in that economic exploitation through Congressional action. Pass antitrust and commerce legislation designed to ensure that the athletes who "collectively generate tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars annually for their schools"—and by the way, it's actually billions—are denied the freedom to earn their slice of the college sports money pie, since allowing them to do so would fail "to recognize the value of sports as a part of education."

Forgive me if I find it hard to distinguish the poison from Yankah's cure.

Read More: Dear White House: Don't Let The NCAA Scam You

Yankah contends that if an athlete were to choose a college "not for its academic quality, tradition, or beautiful campus but because it outbid all other suitors, a connection to the university's values would be lost." This view—that choosing a college for reasons related to money violates the values of academia while also somehow dishonoring less commercially successfully sports, the "gymnasts" and "softball players" who Yankah writes "pour hours of work into training"—is wrong for so many reasons. It also mirrors the general contention of college sports powerbrokers that earning and learning are somehow incompatible, a standard they only apply to campus athletes.

Let's be clear: colleges are commercial entities that sell education at market prices, and students choose the best mix of economic and non-economic benefits being offered. Except for the very rich, every student—athlete or not—makes his or her college selection with money in mind. Moreover, the college sports economic activities that Yankah decries in his article—$5 million coaching salaries and under-the-table payments to players that sour alumni—are not symptomatic of an excessive professionalization of the on-field workforce. Rather, they're the pernicious, all-too-predictable side effects of an otherwise vibrant industry denying the talent its due.

To support his argument, Yankah pointed to "scandals," such as whether Cam Newton's father offered his services in exchange for a donation to the elder Newton's church or whether Chris Webber's loyalty was less to Michigan's blue and maize than to the almighty dollar's green. There are other, fresher corruptions to which Yankah could have pointed, such as the recent allegations that employees of the University of Louisville used prostitutes to attract high school basketball recruits. Only these are not, as Yankah argues, "what happens when college sports are reduced to a market." Rather, they are the symptoms of a market that has been stifled, of a culture that says that money paid directly to athletes is somehow dirty, while money paid to university employees to ensure said athletes are kept away from money is pure and good.

According to the logic of college sports amateurism, it's moral to pay one of these talented television entertainers, but not the others. —Photo by Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It shocks me how often I have to say this in a country where the dignity of an honest day's worth is supposedly held in such high esteem, but money is not inherently evil. Money offered freely and fairly to encourage activities that we consider worthy is the lifeblood of the American economy. If a market for elite college athletes exists on an in-kind basis (with tuition, books, housing and like as the coin of the realm), then cash payments within that market are no more evil than Mr. Yankah's paycheck. Or my own. Schools outbid each other all the time for able administrators; for top-shelf professors; for promising scholars. Have those institutions lost a connection with their own values? Hardly.

By now, everyone paying attention knows that "amateurism" has its roots in a vicious Victorian ethos designed to maintain rigid class distinctions and keep the poor out of gentlemanly pursuits like sports. As a philosophy, amateurism was of, by, and for the One Percent of its era; it held that exploiting the economic activity of others in order to have enough leisure time to engage in sport was somehow nobler than doing the work that enabled the leisure class to exist in such un-earned splendor. As Brian Cronin explained in an article debunking the ancient Greek originals of amateurism:

" ... ideas regarding amateurism (which was "athletes should not be paid for their efforts") remained the standard for all the other games of the era and ultimately became the standard adopted by the Olympics. However, this standard seemed less interested in celebrating the nobility of 'playing for the love of the game' so much as they were celebrating the nobility of, well, the nobility."

It is odd and sadly ironic to see the self-justifications of 19th Century Britain's economic elite twisted into an argument that the NCAA and its member schools' ongoing exploitation is the driver of sport as source of education for America's underprivileged.

In my own academic work, I have written how the justification for this exploitation is built on a series of myths about "amateurism," each of them a truthy-sounding falsehood designed to extend the reign of the exploiters over the exploited, all of them tailored to convince people that this peculiar institution is all that stands between college sports and the abyss.

In some ways, Yankah has fallen for at least four of these myths: the ones that tells us that the words "collegiate" and "professional" are antonyms or that if we pay college athletes, we might as well kick them out of school; and the ones that tie the fate of men or women who play sports other than football and basketball to the perpetuation of the exploitation of those who do.

Thing is, it's not the market that seeks to separate education and sport—America loves to pay big money to watch college sports—but rather Yankah, who suggests those who wish to play sports for money get the heck off of his lawn, the better to play in some he-wishes-it-existed football minor league. On Twitter, Yankah explained that his real target was the increased commercialism of major college sports. But the commercialism we see today, virtually indistinguishable from the NFL or the NBA, has emerged and thrives in a world where market pay for athletes already has been prohibited. Amateurism hasn't even solved the supposed problem Yankah has invented; nevertheless, he wants to lock it in as a matter of federal law. He is blaming Hope for having failed to keep Pandora's box closed.

Amateurism has definitely kept crass commercialism out of our noble campus sports. —Photo by Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Confusing cause and effect is never a path to positive change. Here, it seemingly leads Yankah to blame the victims of the system of economic exploitation rather than the perpetrators. The real fault lies in the NCAA's principle—which, again Yankah would like Congress to codify—that "while participating is to be an avocation for students, college sports as an enterprise is a professional undertaking for everyone else." Yankah is a professor paid to participate in a system that awards fellowships, recruits graduate students with stipends and pays academics to take sabbaticals to focus on new research directions; why would he deny access to a similar mix of money and academics to athletes, and athletes alone?

Across American culture as a whole, I can't help but wonder if much of the fear of potential college athlete pay raises—from the current price of an athletic scholarship to whatever Alabama, LSU, and yes, Michigan, might offer a five-star high school quarterback in a free market—stems from not trusting Yankah's "disproportionately black ... poor and educationally disadvantaged" young men to make the right choices between wealth and wisdom. Case in point? In 2011, a Tennessee Tech University professor argued against giving college athletes a $2,000 cost-of-living stipend by stating "it seems most dubious to give some student athletes what amounts to 'tattoo money."

To his credit, Yankah doesn't make this kind of argument. That said, his proposal essentially makes a value judgment about who does and does not deserve to be paid what they're worth. And that, in turn, devalues the rights of one subset of Americans. By Yankah's logic, it's fine for a law professor to make as much as he can, but not fine for a cannon-armed 18-year-old to do the same—and the justification is because softball players also play college sports. And because education is good. I disagree with the entire premise that those economic rights are Yankah's, or any of ours, to barter away.To empower our athletes to be full members of society, the first step must be to stop treating them like wards of the state, in need of paternalistic plans designed to shield them from the patently false choice of selecting bonuses and therefore sacrificing books.

Markets often get a bad name among people on the left of the political spectrum, because they are associated with a got-mine, up-yours, let-them-eat cake disdain for collective responsibility. I am as suspicious as the next liberal when I see "the market" being used as an excuse not to accept the costs of social justice. But in the specific case of big-time college sports, a free market would be right and just; it would allow talented young men and women to earn their fair keep, rather than accepting crumbs as charity. The best How-to-Fix-the-NCAA plan is no plan at all, beyond acknowledging that campus athletes are like all other adult members of American society, free individuals capable of making free choices.

Anything less is inherently paternalistic, and likely exploitative. Yankah prioritizes his personal disdain for campus commercialism over the basic rights of young men (and women, too!) to choose how they wish to be compensated for their valuable athletic talents and services. If Congress ever fulfills his wish, whose interests are really being served? It is a "corrosive American belief," Yankah writes, "that anything that has value must also have a price." Perhaps. But far more corrosive is the idea that some Americans' rights are less valid that others—that those with money and freedom can systemically deny the same goods to younger, less powerful individuals lacking both, and then justify that denial by appealing to a gauzy, made-up standard that they themselves make no effort to abide by.