In defense of the NCAA

March 25, 2014

As the annual March Madness basketball tournament returns, so does our collective ambivalence toward college sports operated by the NCAA. Many find it outrageous that with so much money at stake, the players aren’t paid.

This debate normally leads to two different solutions: either pay student-athletes and acknowledge their true status as university employees, or focus on universities’ true purpose — education — and only admit academically qualified students, effectively ending Division I college sports as we know it. Supporters of the latter argue we should drop the charade that these players are amateurs, and replace the NCAA with a minor league for football and basketball, where players are paid.

From an economic perspective, however, the current system is a better alternative for most athletes. The NCAA college-athlete model, where pay consists largely of scholarships, is a good one because it overcomes a market failure that would arise if all promising high school athletes went straight to the minor leagues. Replacing the NCAA with a pay-for-play system is not the answer. Instead, we should embrace the model we have and adjust it to serve the majority of athletes.

First, consider the alternative: a minor league where basketball and football players are paid while developing their talents. The ones who do well would transition to the National Basketball Association or National Football League; the less-talented might play for a European team or, more likely, find other work. Pay in these minor leagues would not be high; minor league baseball salaries range between $3,000 and $7,500 a season. Minor football and basketball leagues would garner little interest and player exposure, let alone lucrative TV contracts, because a large part of the NCAA interest is the enthusiasm and loyalty from alumni.

Yes, the athletes would be paid. But most would be worse off. Many players wouldn’t go on to high-paying professional contracts. Once they retire they would have to find another job, entering the workforce with limited skills and education.

The college sports system, by comparison, does a better job preparing athletes for a life beyond the locker room. College athletes are given a free education and the opportunity to earn a degree. This is far more valuable than a minor league salary, especially for athletes who wouldn’t otherwise go to college. The college sports model spares young, overconfident teenagers from having to choose between the minor league shot at glory and an education. Many of them would probably make a decision that, in hindsight, would be the wrong one. The NCAA model avoids that market failure by not making young athletes choose between education and athletics.

Yes, the most talented players might benefit from a minor league system because they’d be paid and go pro either way. But the college sports model better serves the average player. The superstar athletes, by forgoing pay while in college, effectively subsidize their more average teammates.

This disparity in talent and earning potential explains why paying student-athletes is problematic. If college players were paid based on their value — how much revenue their personal talent brings in — the best players would be paid more, and wind up at one of few schools willing and able to pay. The compelling NCAA teams would be limited to a few universities, and more marginal players would not get the same training or perhaps not go to a university at all.

Education is the most valuable part of NCAA compensation because it gives athletes not destined for the pros another alternative. The problem is, however, that many players don’t have the time or skills to benefit from being in school. Many players come from academically weak high schools and have spent their lives focused on sports. The demands of playing on a team leave little time for academics.

Learning specialist Mary Willingham, who tutored athletes at the University of North Carolina, describes players who couldn’t handle the rigors of UNC curriculum and took classes that involved no lectures — only a paper that could be easily plagiarized. By her assessment, out of more than 800 UNC student-athletes between 2004 and 2012, 183 couldn’t keep up — 85 percent of whom played either football or basketball. Willingham reckons 128 of these athletes read at between a third and eighth grade level.

At other top sports schools, graduation rates have improved recently, but are still far lower for black athletes. But if what Willingham witnessed at UNC happens at other schools, the graduation rates don’t represent an actual education.

The fact that players come to college with marginal academic skills reflects failures in secondary education in America, and a culture that prizes sports over academics. The NCAA can’t do much about the former, but it can improve the latter by making education a priority. This might involve monetary bonuses for coaches and conferences with higher graduation rates.

Even more important, that college degree must represent learning and skill development. Academically weak athletes often have tutors, plenty of whom help athletes jump through hoops to maintain eligibility, rather than actually teaching them. Acknowledging the educational needs of many players, rather than pretending they have the background to handle college curriculum, would be a good start.

Athletes who need remedial education should have access to it and the support they need to manage any learning disability. Players also need better academic and career counseling to help them navigate the considerable pressures of playing sports full-time and also being a student.

It may be that college athletes in high revenue sports, such as basketball and football, shouldn’t be expected to carry a full course load. But they should be able to keep their scholarships and finish their education once they are no longer eligible to play. That way, players who are good enough for the NCAA, but not the professional leagues, can use their talents as a ticket to an education that will pay off over their lifetime.

PHOTOS: Mar 23, 2014; Raleigh, NC, USA; The Virginia Cavaliers bench reacts to a play against the Memphis Tigers during the second half of a men’s college basketball game during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at PNC Arena. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Mar 23, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Melvin Ejim (3) celebrates winning against the North Carolina Tar Heels after a men’s college basketball game during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at AT&T Center. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)


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The author completely misses the point which, as a big fan of her work, is very disappointing. I am sure she has read Taylor Branch’s piece on the subject. In light of it, this piece is puzzling to say the least. ive/2011/10/the-shame-of-college-sports/ 308643/

Regarding athletes, the issues go far beyond whether they should be paid. These are just a few.

Should they have lifetime health insurance coverage in case of serious injury?
Should they be guaranteed four year scholarships if they qualify academically?
Should they be forced to sit out a year if they want to transfer?
Should they have rights to the use of their image or should it be property of the NCAA?
Should they be allowed to work while in college (outside of the work they do within it)?

The notion that superstar athletes should be forced to subsidize the “average athlete” doesn’t really seem to make much sense, especially in the context of college basketball, where many of those players are kept from pursuing professional opportunities. Set in its proper context, it amounts basically to mostly impoverished African-American football and basketball players subsidizing everyone else: athletes in non revenue producing sports, administrators, and coaches. Kids from the ghetto subsidizing lacrosse players from the suburbs. It’s immoral.

To address the main point of the article, why exactly should a superstar college basketball player be asked to subsidize everyone else? Why not just let him go to the NBA instead?

Ask an ESPN executive about college basketball, and I have, and that executive will tell you that “these kids” should be forced to stay in school, not for one year, but for at least three years, because the “product” just isn’t as good as it once was (while still making money hand over fist of course.) Adam Silver feels the same way. That’s the mentality in play.

Isn’t there something wrong with that? Does it make sense that all the rules and regulations governing college sports quite clearly are to maximize not the welfare of the student but the profit of the other parties involved.

Should we really be sticking up for ESPN, the major networks, the NCAA, and the adminstrators benefitting from the massive contracts these colleges are signing with regional networks?

The only sports that matter are men’s college basketball and football. That’s it. And what is happening in those sports is tremendously inequitable. The sums involved are so gigantic it’s obscene. Drawing a distinction between non-revenue and revenue producing athletes may be legal difficult, but it’s worth litigating. There is simply no way to justify the way the profits from this enterprise are being distributed.

The idea of asking college athletes to sacrifice being paid, when the average Division I football coach is making over 1.6 million, is incredibly tone deaf. You really think any of these bozos, and that is what they are, wouldn’t do the job for 200k? Ditto for athletic directors who make over 500K. There is no logical reason the most highly paid public servants in many states to be coaches. There just isn’t.

There may not be a perfect fix. But there are plenty of easy reforms which could make the situation at least morally tenable.

Every scholarship in football or basketball should be a guaranteed four year scholarship.
Every athlete who suffers long term health impacts from playing college sports should have their medical costs paid for the rest of their life.
Athletes should be free to transfer from school to school without any restrictions.
Athletes should have full rights to their image (jersey sales etc) Any revenues generated should be set aside for after they graduate if necessary)
Athletes should have no restrictions on employment.
Athletes in revenue producing sports should be paid in proportion to profit generated.
Athletes should face no restriction on their ability to pursue professional opportunities.

That would be a decent starting point at least.

Posted by Metsox | Report as abusive

I mean, this is the NCAA where things like this happen. Do things seem fair? 8-000-because-a-wrestler-won-a-tit-15512 89573

Posted by Metsox | Report as abusive

Mrs. Schrager has gallantly come to the defense of the NCAA’s hoodwinking and patronizing scholarship programs. This organization pays a marginal amount for student-athletes, who, among other things, keeps millions of dollars flowing through the NCAA’s accounting books each year. These athletes are neither students nor employees as described in Taylor Branch’s October 2011 article “The Shame of College Sports.” So when these student-athletes are permanently injured, they aren’t covered by workman’s compensation laws, nor does the university/college’s insurance have to treat them as a student. The NCAA makes millions from advertisements as they promote a version of indentured servitude while heralding it as way for economically vulnerable students to pander their bodies for a scholarship. Mrs. Schrager would have you believe that paying student-athletes is unjust or a vacuous investment. Regardless, Schrager’s treatment of the issue is subhuman, relating players to simple automatons that are only useful as profit margins for the NCAA.

Posted by milestristero | Report as abusive

Paying athletes would be teasing them. They would get a taste of the big boy money and want more. But less than 1% of college basketball players will even make it to the NBA. And of the 60 drafted each season, only 48 or so ever even play a game in the big leagues. College athletes should understand that they won’t go pro. They must understand their own caliber. Sure playing college sports is fun and has it’s perks, but paying would be a tease. College athletes who have no shot at going pro could have fun playing but should make sure to spend enough time studying for free at their world class university so that when they graduate undrafted they have some skills to show.

Posted by anon23579 | Report as abusive

The notion that education is the great benefit of college sports scholarships is right AS LONG AS the student-athlete graudates or even gets three years into the education. However, that is rarely the case in most colleges and universities, especially in the SEC. If listening to these athletes in an interview is any indication of education, the athlete is not getting any kind of education. This of course does not indude schools as in the Ivy League, Duke, Notre Dame, etc. With the scandals in many of the top athetic schools regarding the coures they take, or the courses they are enrolled in and don’t take but get grades, with the top stars quite often “going pro” after one or two years, I really wonder about the value of the education. I’m sure some take advantage and get a degree, but I’m more sure the university gets further in the “March Madness,” etc. to gain more money in the millions which is prize money in any sport, track included. Sorry, I don’t buy the premise of this story. More like a PR piece by the NCAA.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

There are many more issue’s with the NCAA being a good organization for student-athletes, than just the paying of athletes. The NCAA has dozens of issues with its governance, with its fairness, and with its rules…. Money is just the ‘feel-good’ media story that draws the attention….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Athletic scholarships should be contracts. Athletes should also get academic credit for practice and playing time that takes time away from studying. Under the contract, if the student athlete fails to graduate then the money must be paid back. If they graduate, then the contract has been fulfilled.

Posted by CharlesBierbach | Report as abusive

Professional sports has no place in education, NONE. It is a travesty that major state schools (supported by tax dollars) are paying coaches $1.0 millions in salary, spending $10’s millions on sports facilities, yet pay an adjunct professor under $20K a year!

If students want to play sports, fine. However, college basketball, football, and the rest are only justified because they bind the alumni to the school. That’s complete nonsense. If a alumnus only gives money in order to see a football game, then the university has lost its mission: education.

The cost of higher education has escalated in the past 30 to 40 years on par with pharmaceutical prices – nearly 4x average annual CPI. Why? It’s not in the actual teaching salaries that has gone up. It’s the costs of administration ($1.0 million salary presidents, coaches, deans, provosts), grandiose buildings and sport facilities.

Sports in education is a major distraction and unneeded cost, not just in colleges, but also in high school. My southern high school had a major sports stadium but not even a chemistry lab. Math geniuses were nerds while football captains were heroes. And we wonder why the US is falling behind in educating its youth. The answer is simple. Get rid of sports in school.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

I would love to turn the NIT tournament around and make it the Premier college basketball venue. One of the things I would do is give each player that made it to the Elite 8 at the Garden a bank card for them to enjoy the funds in the Big Apple (responsibly) The card would only be good in the 5 boroughs of NYC. Unfortunately, many small minds would not like that.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Entrenched Corruption

Here in America intercollegiate athletics is the farm system for professional football, basketball, and others. It is strongly subsidized by state and municipal governments. This is corruption that is so strongly entrenched in our educational system that it is rarely even recognized.
The issues regarding athletes’ right to work or strike would be moot if the corruption was removed. The devastating head and other injuries, the extraordinary waste of human and material resources, the enormous debts incurred to build stadiums, the corruption of coaches and others as was seen in the Jerry Sandusky debacle … all of these would be eliminated with the demise of intercollegiate athletics and the NCAA.

Posted by DonKrieger | Report as abusive

I find I have no sympathy for the student-athlete as they seem to get a pretty sweet deal. They are getting their shot at their dreams subsidized and it sounds as if all they want is to stick their hand out for more. Not only that, but the big money sports – basketball and football – are for the most part populated by student-athletes who have no right to be educated at an institution of higher learning since a) they have not the academic capability and b) they could not afford it.

With that being said, I think once an athlete has been granted a scholarship it should be valid for life and be considered satisfied once the athlete has graduated. I don’t think the athletes should be forced to do course-work during the athletic season, but at least one full semesters worth of credits should be completed per calendar year. I think athletes should get comprehensive healthcare coverage while enrolled. I think athletes should be able to work (as non-athletes) to earn some money. I don’t think athletes should be able to transfer from school to school to join a better ‘program’ unless they repay their original school before joining the new one.

I haven’t heard exactly what the demands are of the union, but if they are literally demanding pay-for-play they are out of their minds and spoiled-sick individuals. If they are lobbying for the things I mentioned above, more power to them.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Pay-for-play minor leagues already exist (like the vast minor league baseball system and the NBA’s D-League), but many players choose to go to college anyway because, all things considered, the current system already compensates college athletes better than the minor leagues do. The issues is NOT that colleges refuse to compensate athletes: College athletes clearly ARE compensated. I read a column on Forbes a while back that claimed that full-scholarship athletes in D1 football programs commonly receive north of $100,000/year in scholarships, medical care, nutrition, personal training, etc.

The issue is that the NCAA has put a cap on what successful athletes are allowed to earn. The answer isn’t to REQUIRE teams to pay their athletes–they already do pay as competitively as they are allowed in the form of non-cash perks. The answer, in my opinion, is to ALLOW teams to pay and to ALLOW student athletes to earn. Not every team will pay every athlete, but particular top recruits will receive pay, and even athletes who do not receive pay will be able to at least earn money on the side.

Furthermore, this author argues that if we allow student athletes to be paid, then all of the best student athletes will choose a small cadre of the top-paying schools. She seems unaware that this is what already happens under the present system. Athletes already choose schools based on perks, and the schools with the best perks get the best athletes. Adding one more perk is not going to change much, except that there could be a reshuffling of which schools are considered the top schools for a given sport.

Posted by DaleG | Report as abusive

Why not tie post season eligibility for football and basketball to 50% graduation rate initially, rising to 80% over 20 years? Wouldn’t that reinforce the presumed benefit of the college education?

Let the players play for 4 years. Eliminate the penalty for transferring, though only allow transfers between academic years. Whichever college/university a player played for when their eligibility ended would have to allow them to complete their undergrad education. If some players aren’t ready for college work during their playing years, give them remedial instruction those years. Let the players complete their degrees free of charge after their 4 playing years are over. And any career-ending injuries would automatically be treated as completing 4 playing years.

This would cost colleges/universities, so naturally they’d resist, and the NCAA would never require it. Nevertheless without an absolute requirement that colleges/universities provide an actual undergrad education, possibly following a comprehensive remedial education, to all players who exhaust their eligibility, the current system will remain thoroughly corrupt.

IOW, the ideal may be sound, but the current implementation is woefully inadequate.

Posted by hrlngrv | Report as abusive

I am appalled that basketball even warrants serious discussion on the site. Apart from being the most boring sport on the planet (and generous allowance made for U.S. football), college basketball is nothing more than another money-making scheme for the NBA.

It also serves as an enabler for too many individuals who could never enter university without the lure of a sports scholarship. If universities choose to offer basketball programs, fine, but please stop doing so as a draw from the mentally challenged and as the main raison d’etre for an institution of higher learning’s being.

Posted by HBGuy | Report as abusive