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.