Exploiting Football Players by Paying Them

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column today, I use "Bowl Week" as an excuse to return to the subject of paying college football players. In October of last year, I wrote a post critiquing a widely-praised article by Taylor Branch in The Atlantic. I took Branch to task for two of his arguments, the more important of which was his response to those who point out that college football and basketball players are already being paid, in the form of scholarships. Actually, Branch did not make an argument, but rather drew a tortured analogy between college scholarships and the promises of heavenly salvation that were offered to slaves in the pre-Civil War United States. (I am not making this up.)

A renewal of Branch's arguments in favor of paying college football players arrived this past weekend, courtesy of the inimitable NYT op-ed columnist Joe Nocera. Nocera devoted his column on Saturday, and a special article in the Sunday Magazine, to attacking the NCAA for running an OPEC-style cartel, and exploiting its free pool of slave labor for illicit gain. Like Branch, Nocera's judgment was quite evidently compromised by the very understandable outrage that one inevitably feels when looking at the ugly side of college sports. The NCAA is not OPEC, but it is a governing body that is doing a very poor job of governance, to the detriment of the players. It is a shame that well-motivated people like these two writers have gone so far astray, evidently due to their blind rage.

My bottom line in the Verdict column is that one could (and should) favor nearly every reform that has been offered to help the players, except paying them cash salaries. My argument is that the big money of college sports should be used to support higher education, rather than being used to amp up the arms race in college sports to even more insane levels. Funneling the money back to the non-profit purpose to which it should be dedicated would help both the players and their fellow students. Even if we cannot turn back the clock to the days when big money was not an inevitable part of college sports, we can certainly try to put that money to better use.

Here, I want to look at some questions related to paying players with tuition, rather than money. My argument, after all, could not possibly be that the current system is fine as it is, simply because the players do not have to pay tuition. We should be trying to minimize the physical toll on the players much more than currently, and some of the money must be diverted to medical and disability insurance for the large numbers of players who are inevitably injured (including coverage for injuries that might not be immediately disabling, such as concussions). At a bare minimum, some of the money sloshing around college sports must be devoted to compensation for the human toll of the games.

Even if we were to fix that problem, however, Nocera correctly points out that we are currently not allowing players to use their scholarships to obtain the valuable educations that should be their right. That is, we give them free tuition, but we allow them -- actually, we all but require them -- to fritter that valuable asset away. Players are given some extra academic supports, such as organized study halls and tutors, but they are also given very little time to study (especially when there are road trips for away games), and nearly every school allows athletes to take classes that are not challenging. Sometimes, this rises to the level of national scandal (such as a class at the University of Georgia for basketball players in the 1990's, the final exam for which actually included this multiple-choice question: "How many points does a team receive for a 3-point field goal?"), but the general standards everywhere are so low that even the players who graduate are too often poorly educated.

I understand those who are skeptical that it is possible to get the hyper-competitive universities to agree to anything that will address these ills. Is it really easier, however, to imagine them -- especially if the NCAA is nothing but a cartel -- to agree to pay players? If we are looking at the most likely path to improving the lives of players, it seems much more plausible that universities would agree to uniform standards to improve the education of their athletes, rather than agreeing to pay salaries to players. Among other things, the salary issue is one of those roadblocks that is an all-or-nothing fight in the minds of everyone involved, whereas improvements in education and medical coverage could be achieved incrementally. We might never make as much progress as we would like, but political capital would be better spent in that direction, rather than having a years-long, high-stakes battle in Congress and the courts over the question of amateurism in college sports.

Even if I am right in that prediction, however, there is still another issue that potentially weighs against my conclusion. If my plan is to pay students by giving them real opportunities to earn a college education, what about the talented athletes who simply are not ready to study at the college level? Especially given that our society spends so much time telling every small town's star athlete that he does not have to worry about doing well in school, there is sometimes a serious disconnect between athletic talent and academic promise at the college level.

This is why Nocera suggests that the basic model of big-time college sports in the U.S. -- with universities stepping outside of their fundamental area of expertise, doubling as a farm system for professional sports (and as a provider of entertainment content for media conglomerates) -- is so unnatural. If one were thinking about this from scratch, he argues, it would be odd indeed to come up with the idea of using universities as the minor league-equivalents for football and basketball. That baseball actually has a farm system, even though universities have big-time baseball programs, is strong evidence that Nocera's observation is right.

On the other hand, college football and basketball are entertainment phenomena in their own right, unlike minor league baseball. The issue is not just developing athletes, but rather what to do with the money that colleges are making from so many never-to-turn-pro athletes, who perform in a system that entertains millions of ecstatic fans.

In any event, given that we are not starting from scratch, we are left with this question: Should we simply accept the idea that student-athletes are an archaic ideal, and start paying very young men salaries for a short time to wear university logos while playing a game, or should we try to recover as much of the student-athlete model as we can? One argument for the former approach, as I noted above, is that some talented athletes cannot be turned into students. As jaded as I am, this strikes me as giving up far too easily.

One of the most important things that the current system does (and certainly that an improved system could do much better) is to turn many people who otherwise would not consider college into students. Large numbers of top-tier athletes are the first members of their families to set foot on a college campus. If we give them an easy out, telling them that we have dropped even the hope that they might succeed in college, then we are surely dooming to failure some young men who could have succeeded. As it stands, kids and their parents know that college is a stepping stone to the pro careers that almost none of them will achieve. Even though this sometimes leads to pay-for-SAT scandals and similar problems, every good law has such ancillary effects. The goal is to set standards, enforce those standards rigorously, and understand that perfection is not possible.

For those few athletes who simply cannot cut it as students (or do not want to try), there are already alternative paths into the pro ranks. Having the system set up to funnel athletes into college -- that is, into colleges where they will actually be expected to study -- will at least have the effect of forcing nearly everyone to try to take advantage of the offer of a free college education.

To a large degree, these arguments are based on empirical guesses. How much political effort would be required to achieve decent reforms, as opposed to fighting to allow salaries to be paid at all? How many athletes are simply beyond hope as students, and how many would benefit from a college education only if we essentially force them to give it a try? Maybe my guesses as to these relative magnitudes are wrong. Operating in our current state of ignorance, however, I would rather try to give young athletes every reason and opportunity to earn a college degree, at which point they can earn salaries without putting on pads.

We could pay the players, and then tell ourselves that the cartel is no longer exploiting them for their unpaid labor. Or we could realize that doing so would simply be a different kind of exploitation, in which we would be removing a ladder to real opportunity, feeling good about ourselves because we paid them money for a few years. Education is still the best preparation for the future.