In defense of the NCAA
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)