Madness: The Economic Exploitation of the NCAA

The NCAA has a heart of gold—or at least tries to buy one with the $16+ billion they receive in television rights contracts for March Madness and the College Football Playoff. But were the (young, disproportionately black) athletes to receive a more equitable share from the (old, disproportionately white) institution, wouldn’t things only get worse? How could dumb jocks who have never worked a real job match the integrity of college athletics’ leaders like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse or the late Joe Paterno of Penn State?

It’s old news that the NCAA is, by definition, a cartel: a group formed to restrict wages by unilaterally dictating scholarship limits, thereby shriveling the economic freedom of their laborers. Athletic scholarships, by definition, pay athletes in-kind services and benefits (athletic training, room, board, education optional) in exchange for playing a varsity sport. Non-athletes don’t get athletic scholarships; it’s that simple. The pay-for-play debate is not whether athletes should be paid—they already are—but whether the NCAA has any legal grounds to arbitrarily cap that pay.

The NCAA’s argument to this point is truly impressive: they get to decide what “payments” are, and they have decided that scholarships are not payments. How convenient! Imagine if anyone could say the same to the IRS: the health care and company car I receive from my employer are not payments, so you don’t get to tax them. The end!

Beyond the “no-it-isn’t!” defense (so sophisticated that Monty Python did a sketch on it 40+ years ago), the NCAA is so refreshing because in addition to bringing plantations back from the 19th century, they are brazenly paternalistic. Paying for a college athlete’s family to attend his/her sporting match was for years a violation of the NCAA’s fabled “amateurism”, an infraction sure to draw a penalty if noticed. Until the NCAA just decided one day that providing for athletes’ families is a noble calling perfectly aligned with “amateurism”, so long as the NCAA does the providing, rather than empowering the athletes to do so.

This is an organization that cannot open its mouth without bragging about the $2.7 billion they give in scholarships, either ignoring or forgetting that without exploiting the athletes in the first place, the NCAA would not have a single cent to give to anyone. NCAA sports take in over $11 billion annually on the backs of college athletes. Then while distributing less than 25% back to those same athletes, they preach the virtues of fair play. Leon Festinger would be proud.

In truly bizarre fashion, this paternalism only extends to the athletes the NCAA claims to educate. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to pursue non-academic opportunities and no one batted an eye. Natalie Portman starred in movies before attending college and could join the film club, skip class, and earn her worth in a free market. Yet (young, disproportionately black) athletes who may place sports above studying or dare to sell an autograph are naturally put in line by (old, disproportionately white) tyrants who claim to own them, or at least their name, image, and likeness. The heart of the plantation lives on.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Men’s Basketball Team

Kentucky Basketball

The 2015 NCAA Board of Governors

NCAA Board of Governors

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