Race, Exploitation, and Football

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Two weeks ago, during college Bowl Week, I posted some thoughts on the recent calls to pay college football (and men's basketball) players for their money-making efforts on behalf of their universities. Although I agreed that the NCAA is obviously failing in many ways to police big-time college sports, especially to protect the players and allow them to reap the benefits of their scholarships, I concluded that paying college players was neither necessary nor wise. In the final paragraph of that post, I argued that paying players "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."

The elephant in this room, of course, is race, which I deliberately did not address in my previous post. Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I return to this issue, to explore how race weighs on the question of paying players in revenue-generating college sports.

Any analysis of this question must begin with the simple acknowledgement that these are difficult issues. Even if race were not such a significant part of the story, there are a host of competing factors that can pull well-meaning people in different directions. I absolutely do not question the good faith of the authors whom I criticized (Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera). When I argue that we should continue to deny cash payments to these young men, who are often from quite poor backgrounds, I am painfully aware of the immediate costs that such a policy imposes on real people. Ideally, we would figure out a way to do everything, to help people in need of help in all situations, but it seems too easy to argue that we should do more of everything. We at least need to think through what the tradeoffs involve, if universities cannot or will not do everything that is needed to make the system better for the student-athletes.

The analysis here, therefore, contrasts two possibilities: (1) Continuing to "pay" college athletes by giving them full-ride athletic scholarships, with appropriate changes to current policies to allow the players to be true student-athletes, graduating with degrees that reflect college-level learning, or (2) Accepting the reality that college players are really "hired guns," who wear the logos of their employer/universities, yet who are currently prevented by the NCAA from being paid any part of the huge sums of money that their efforts continue to generate for everyone but themselves, which means that we should replace their (often unused) scholarships with cash payments as employees of the universities.

One of the most potent arguments in the Branch/Nocera brief invokes race. Branch's powerful and emotional invocation of the slave narrative, comparing the current college sports scene to the plantation system of the slave era, is anything but subtle. We are not merely exploiting and injuring young men, but we are doing this to a large number of poor African-American men (and, indirectly, their families). In the professional sports context, Charles Barkley was right to scoff at the plantation metaphor, noting that slaves were not paid five million dollars per year, but it is at least plausible to suggest that American universities are too often getting something for nothing, then tossing the players on the ash heap of broken bodies and dreams.

Having said all that, I believe that the racial component actually offers a more compelling argument in favor of offering (real) education, rather than money. The choice (unless, again, we are talking about more of everything) is between treating athletes like students, or like service-providing employees. If we simply start treating football players like a university's cafeteria workers, or groundskeepers, or office workers, or maintenance workers, we are implicitly giving up on the idea that they can or should be educated. It is surely true that other university employees can (and very often do) take advantage of limited free tuition benefits, but a pay-for-play sports system would almost surely reduce the number of college athletes who actually complete a college degree. The physical demands alone, once there are no NCAA rules limiting practice time or providing other protections to allow student-athletes to study -- because we will have given up on treating them as student-athletes -- will surely increase sufficiently to make it unrealistic for large numbers of players to force themselves of their own volition to be students, too.

As I argued in my earlier post, there are surely some top-line athletes who are simply "not college material." Some fraction of college athletes might not have the cognitive skills or discipline to do college-level work, but the current system (and certainly my suggested improved version of that system) provides strong incentives not to give up on any young man prematurely. The current system, moreover, does provide alternatives to the pro ranks for those who cannot maintain eligibility in college.

Viewing the choice through the lens of race is, therefore, most accurately described as a matter of taking a population strongly dominated by poor African-Americans and either giving them access to subsidized higher education, or treating them like manual laborers. At the very least, I should think that we would hesitate to embrace a systemic change that would almost certainly replace college diplomas with (up to) four years of wages -- especially for a population that would otherwise be highly unlikely ever to set foot in a college classroom.

Perhaps, however, the wages will be handsome enough to justify the tradeoff. Again, we are dealing with suppositions about magnitudes that should be subjected to empirical scrutiny, but it seems highly likely that a market-based approach to paying wages to these workers would result in large numbers of players receiving very low levels of compensation. Even at the professional level, populated by the tiniest fraction of former elite college players, it is only collective bargaining that guarantees minimum wages. Nocera's suggestion that we allow collective bargaining at the college level is a start, but we are still dealing with a much larger talent pool, with only the best players sure to benefit from superstar salaries.

Even the rosters of the most successful programs, after all, are currently chock-full of players who are on full scholarships, but who rarely play at the college level, and who surely are not pro prospects. While Alabama's star running back Trent Richardson will makes millions in the NFL, the guys taking a beating on the practice field will have to pay to watch him play on Sundays.

Paying players with educations, therefore, is not only a statement of hope and confidence that poor African-Americans can benefit from the opportunity to earn a college degree. It is a strongly progressive regime, essentially a transfer program from the "future rich" (the stars who are currently prevented from earning more than their less-talented teammates) to the rest. This actually is Mitt Romney's nightmare world in which everyone receives the same benefit, no matter how much "value" they produce on the field. And that is a good thing.

Shifting to a wage system, therefore, seems highly likely to represent a regressive shift of benefits, with the non-star players receiving some small amount of compensation (rather than free tuition), and the stars receiving what the market will bear.

Again, this is a difficult set of tradeoffs to measure and predict. I could imagine a possible universe in which even the lowest-paid employee-athletes would do better than they currently fare as student-athletes. If experience with labor markets has taught us anything, however, it is that the vast majority of workers do poorly in large pools of relatively undifferentiated competing workers. That is why even salaried workers can reasonably be described as being exploited, when (to make the screamingly obvious point) the increases in U.S. GDP over the last thirty years have flowed overwhelmingly to the top fraction of one percent of the population. That there are many dollars flowing into college sports, therefore, should hardly give us confidence that the employee-athletes would be well compensated.

The invocation of race, and our shameful history of slavery, is always fraught with power and emotion. If we are to take race seriously, however, it seems highly likely that we would harm minority players as a group by giving up on educating them. Paying players in money rather than scholarships would seem to be both racially and distributively regressive. That is not a path that we should want to follow.