Free the Athletes – Scrap the NCAA

A group called Trial Lawyers
for Public Justice is suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association
(NCAA). The group claims that the use of Scholastic Assessment Test
(SAT) scores to decide who can play college sports discriminates against
black athletes. The real problem, however, is that the NCAA is a cartel
that harms the interests of all athletes, black and white.

The NCAA’s main goal is to reduce
the labor costs to member schools by providing athletes who earn next
to nothing, while bringing in millions of dollars in revenues to member
colleges and universities.

In its lawsuit, the trial
lawyers group notes that students who fail to achieve high SAT scores
are still eligible to act in school plays or any other assortment of
extracurricular activities. Somehow college drama clubs manage to survive
without any sort of national governing body. Why are sports different?

Because sports, unlike other
extracurricular activities, can earn millions of dollars for their universities.
The huge sums of money involved, however, put universities and colleges
in a bind. Only a small number of talented athletes are available. If
colleges were alllowed to compete for players by offering them salaries
commensurate with their abilities, labor prices for athletes would quickly

The solution colleges have
agreed on is one diverse groups — from oil-producing nations to grain
producers — have tried at one time or another.

They have formed a cartel.
In this case, the heart of the cartel is an agreement between colleges
never to offer players anything more than a scholarship as compensation.
Since the stakes are so high, though, each school has an incentive to
cheat, as scandal after scandal of players getting paid with money and
other gifts has revealed. The primary job of the NCAA, then, is to enforce
the agreement.

In most industries, this
conduct would be highly illegal. Executives who conspired to artificially
lower the wages of their workers would likely find themselves in court.

To convince people to support
its cartel, the NCAA trots out arbitrary SAT requirements and appeals
to the academic mission of the university. Intercollegiate athletics
long ago passed from the real of normal extracurricular activity to
a huge money-making machine. All the NCAA does by imposing the SAT and
other academic requirements is give kids with few options even fewer
options by denying them a chance to show off their talents.

The sad thing is that the
NCAA cartel doesn’t necessarily save schools money as much as it shifts
that money around. Consider the Division I football champions, the University
of Florida. None of the players for Florida earned anything more (officially,
at least) than their scholarships. Yet Florida head coach Steve Spurrier
earns $1.1 million a year. All the NCAA does in Florida’s case is take
money that would otherwise go to players and instead give part of it
to the coaches, who are allowed to have different universities compete
for their services by offering higher salaries.

This bowl season, games paid
out an astounding $200 million, none of which can be given to any of
the players responsible for the wins without violating NCAA rules.

Some people are concerned
that paying athletes to play would hurt already low graduation rates
among athletes. In fact, according to the NCAA the graduation rate among
athletes is already higer than among the general student population.

The problem wth graduation
rates — fewer than half of the students who enter a four-year university
as freshmen ever receive their degrees — is a probem endemic to the
particular way American higher education is financed and administered.
Paying players is unlikely to affect it either way.

What paying players would
do is free them from a system in which they do most of the work and
assume all of the risk, yet are prevented from sharing in the results
of their labor. The best way to accomplish this goal is to get rid of
the NCAA.

Postscript: in the summer of 1997, University of Florida football
coach Steve Spurrier signed a contract paying him a reported $2 million
a year. His players are still legally forbidden to accept any compensation
aside from their scholarships.

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News.

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