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College Football Needs to Change, but Player Salaries Are Not the Answer: A Critique of the Misguided Calls to Give Up on the Student-Athlete Ideal

With the frenzy of the college bowl games nearly over for another year, people of good faith are once again thinking about how major college football programs so often mistreat their players.  Indeed, the players are often exploited, injured, and left to fend for themselves.  Meanwhile, the governing body for college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), seems to be either powerless to stop the damage, or possibly even complicit in allowing harm to come to the players.

This situation has led many to call for the end of the charade of amateurism in college sports, suggesting that the best way to protect the players is by allowing a “free market” to bloom, with players being paid their competitive value by the teams that hire them.  Especially strong criticism has been leveled against the NCAA, which is being called a “cartel” and far worse.

Although people are rightly upset with the status quo in college football, it would be a mistake to imagine that a new era of player protection would flow from giving players salaries, or from getting rid of the NCAA.  The important first step is to identify the central problems with college sports, and the next step is to calibrate a logical response to those very real problems.

What is needed is not a movement toward more professionalism in sports, but rather the adoption of effective protections for players—protections that would allow college athletes not only to survive physically, but also to take advantage of the higher education that is supposedly being provided to them.

The New Reality of College Football: Commercialism and Big Donors Drive the Sport

Two months ago, as readers will well recall, a scandal erupted at Penn State University that continues to rock the world of college sports.  Beyond the shock of learning about the immediate victims of sexual abuse who were at the center of that scandal, the world also learned just how much power college football programs (and, at some institutions, men’s basketball programs) have within even the largest universities.  The source of that power is, of course, money.

The importance of money in big-time college football is hardly new, but it has been gaining influence at what seems to be an accelerating pace over the last few years.  Even in an extended economic slump, universities have been able to sell the rights to televise games for record sums, with billions of dollars at stake.  This has led to a sudden frenzy of conference realignments, as each university tries to maximize the dollars that it can reap from its football team.

In principle, this could be a good thing.  If Big State University is able to make money from a football program, it could use that money to support its non-profit purpose: providing higher education to students at the lowest price possible.  That would be no different than, say, a children’s hospital being able to support its budget because an excellent opera singer is willing to sing at a fundraiser the hospital holds.  If a non-profit collects money, it can use that money to do more of the good work that it was set up to do.

That is why it feels a bit uncomfortable when people (like me) complain about the marketing of sports.  Although it might seem crass to have a university hawking its name and logo on sweatshirts and credit cards, it would all be in support of a good cause, and therefore justified, if the money were actually supporting the core purpose of the institution.

The problem, as we know, is that a lot of the money never makes its way from the football offices to the universities’ general funds.  Coaches’ salaries have hit Wall Street levels, and luxurious new athletic facilities are being built to top each other, in an arms-race-like competition.

Similarly, some large benefactors have been pouring donations into the athletic departments of universities, rather than into the universities themselves.  The University of Oregon, for example, turned its football program from a perennial loser into a powerhouse, when a billionaire started giving the university huge sums to build up its football team.  Similarly, an oilman turned Oklahoma State into a national title contender.

This money is sometimes being spent on truly bizarre items, such as designer uniforms, with Oregon’s players being outfitted in a dizzying array of styles and colors.  Now, that trend has extended across the country, most prominently to the University of Maryland, which made headlines this season with an especially ugly set of uniforms.  Even a tradition-bound institution like the University of Michigan had its players wear “throwback” uniforms in a highly watched game.

As silly as this might sound, a serious amount of money is at stake.  More importantly, the money is all being spent in a classic zero-sum game: Not every team can finish with an undefeated record every year.  Throwing more money into the system is simply a waste, in the aggregate, if that money is directed at producing results on the field, rather than being properly diverted to support the university’s educational programs.

The Scary Realities of College Football: Serious Injuries

The money chase in college football might be nothing more than a shameful waste, if the universities were merely using their names to pull money into a system that never produces anything more than cheap (but also lucrative) entertainment.  In that case, the players might well wish that they could catch a few of the dollars that would otherwise be frittered away, but at least there would be no direct human cost to such a system.

As we know, however, the “arms race” to win championships has also resulted in ever greater physical exploitation of the players.  These young men, barely out of adolescence, are subjected to grueling training regimens that go far beyond building strength and stamina, crossing over into abusive regimens that cause long-term damage to young bodies.

Players are encouraged to “bulk up,” with the offensive lines of top programs now routinely including players who all weigh more than three hundred pounds.  Moreover, the problem of physical injuries is getting worse.  Nearly every game—and especially late-season games that test the endurance of bodies that have been beaten down by weeks of collisions—sees players being carted off the field after sustaining season-ending or even career-ending injuries to legs, necks, and backs.

Moreover, professional football has finally begun to acknowledge and try to address perhaps the worst injury problem of all: concussions.  Players who used to be encouraged to get back in the game after having their “bell rung” are finally being given—imperfectly, and reluctantly—some of the medical attention that they deserve.  The long-term consequences of such injuries are only now being studied, but the early results show that playing football predictably creates debilitating brain damage in a large number of players, damage that only shows its effects years after the fact.

In college, the players are nearly as big and as fast as the pros, and the damage they inflict and suffer can be just as severe.  Even so, the TV sports shows continue to glorify the hardest hits.  Again, this is all the result of an arms-race-like dynamic, in which players bulk up to gain an advantage, even though every game will still have a losing team, while the injuries become more and more severe.

Is the NCAA the Problem?  The Understandable, but Ultimately Misguided, Attacks on the Sport’s Governing Body

With college football spinning out of control in so many ways, it is appropriate to ask why nothing is being done to stop the damage.  With that question in mind, some analysts have decided that the problem is with the NCAA.  In a way, of course, that has to be a correct diagnosis: If the governing body of the sport is not passing and enforcing good rules, then it is surely at fault.  That, however, is not where the criticism has stopped.

An influential article, for example, appeared in The Atlantic this past Fall.  Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, the article made it seem as if the NCAA were the source of everything that is wrong with college sports.  Branch’s righteous anger about the current state of college sports was so extreme, in fact, that it appears to have compromised his judgment.  He recklessly compared college football programs to slave plantations, for example, and he took the NCAA to task for everything under the sun.

Branch’s anger, it seems, blinded him so completely that he also strayed into truly bizarre attempts at legal arguments.  Arguing that there is no law allowing the NCAA to enforce amateur status on college athletes, for example, he then claimed that “[n]o legal definition of amateur exists, and any attempt to create one in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature—a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship.”  A bill of attainder?  The constitutional phrase refers to criminal punishment inflicted without trial, by a legislature, and is completely inapt. While not as morally repugnant as his analogies to slavery, these rhetorical excesses undermine the seriousness of Branch’s arguments.

Following Branch’s lead, the New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera devoted his column this past Saturday to an attack on the NCAA as a “a home-grown cartel,” comparing it directly to the dreaded Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (better known as OPEC).  Nocera, like Branch, insulted his readers by saying that the “work force” of the college football industry is being “kept in shackles by the N.C.A.A.”  Again, the anger is understandable, but the judgment is clouded.  Nocera followed up his regular column with a special column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, arguing that players should be paid salaries for their efforts.

Attacking the NCAA for being a monopolist, however, completely misunderstands what a governing body does.  When the United States designates a body to, for instance, set the rules that govern the electrical currents that may be used in consumer devices, that governing body’s decisions inevitably end up costing some companies money, while earning millions for others.  The setting of rules, which is best carried out by a single body, is necessarily arbitrary.

Like every business (profit and non-profit), college football needs to have a set of rules.  The problem is not that there is a monopolistic rule-setter, but that it is not designing a better set of rules.

The complaint coming from people like Branch and Nocera is that the NCAA is using its monopoly to prevent the players from being paid a competitive wage.  Their objection, however, is not really that the NCAA is a monopolist, but that its current set of rules should be changed to allow the players to be paid money for their efforts (under specified conditions).  If the NCAA enforced that rule and its ancillary conditions, albeit monopolistically, Branch and Nocera would presumably be pleased.

The Real Solutions: Protect the Players, Let the Players Actually Learn While They Are in College, and Divert the Money to Pay for Everyone’s Education

The problem with the attack deeming the NCAA a slave-master (beyond its grotesque overstatement) is that it diverts our attention, missing a serious opportunity to fix the real problems in college football.  As both Branch and Nocera describe well, college players are being physically and cognitively damaged, while also being systematically prevented from taking advantage of the education that is supposed to accompany their athletic scholarships.

It is those scholarships, after all, that represent the very high “salary” that college football players already receive.  While Branch dismisses this point, saying that it “echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves,” at least Nocera understands that a college education is extremely valuable, so long as student-athletes are indeed allowed to be students, as well as athletes.

(Nocera also understands, to his great credit, that the players would still be exploited unless they were unionized, describing the necessary organization as follows: “This organization—let’s call it the College Players Association—would manage the health insurance, negotiate with the N.C.A.A. to set the salary caps and salary minimums, distribute royalties and serve as an all-around counterweight to the N.C.A.A.”  Such a union would be a good thing, even without players’ earning salaries.)

Indeed, Nocera is to be credited when it comes to most of his non-salary-related suggestions for fixing the problems in college football.  It is surely criminal, for example, that colleges are not required to provide health and disability insurance to their players.  Given the known risks, it makes no sense at all for universities to shirk the costs of protecting their student-athletes from the consequences of injury.

Should universities be forced to give players scholarships that are not contingent on on-field performance, rather than continuing the year-to-year knife’s edge system that currently exists?  Absolutely.  While that rule, too, would impose costs, it also would wisely reallocate some of the power that is currently overwhelmingly held by coaches and universities.

Nocera also sensibly suggests that players be given two extra years, after their playing days have ended, to finish their educations.  While it would be far better if the athletes could be students while they are also playing football, it is at least incumbent on universities to give football-playing students the opportunity, at some point, to avail themselves of the education that is nominally being offered to them.

Free tuition, after all, is one of the most valuable benefits that anyone can receive.  Due to the focus on superstars, we may forget that football is a sport in which the percentage of players who will ever receive a professional paycheck is in the low single digits. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of college players, a college education is a vital boon.  Indeed, it could and should set them up for life.  How many middle class families do not even dare to dream of being able to afford college for their children?

All of which brings us back to the money.  If we really want to take the best advantage of Americans’ obsession with rooting on our college teams, then we can impose rules that will divert money from the top coaches, the equipment manufacturers, and all the rest, and into the general scholarship funds of American colleges and universities.  That will improve the education that we can offer both to the athletes themselves, and also to the students who work and borrow to pay their own tuition each semester.

Neil H. BuchananNeil H. Buchanan, a Justia columnist, is an economist and legal scholar, a Professor of Law at The George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). He blogs at DorfonLaw.org, and he is the author of The Debt Ceiling Disasters: How the Republicans Created an Unnecessary Constitutional Crisis and How the Democrats Can Fight Back.
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