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August 29, 2013 4:09 PM College Sports, Markets and “Exploitation”

By Ed Kilgore

Big-time college football is facing a lot of challenges at present as the 2013 season begins, some existential (brain-injury research suggesting the game itself could be too damaging for many or even most players), some institutional (the fecklessness of the NCAA as an enforcer of rules, displayed once again by its handling of the Penn State and Miami scandals), and some just psychological (the shift to a playoff system that could soon get out of control and change the nature of the game).

But there’s a legal and economic threat to college football as we know it coming from an escalating series of claims that the sport illegally or unethically exploits athletes who are essentially performing professional services in exchange for meager compensation. The legal threat looms in the form of what is generally known as the “O’Bannon litigation,” which seeks to prevent colleges or the NCAA from profiting from the sale of goods using the “name, image and likeness” of athletes. A recent court ruling involving images used in video games went very badly for the NCAA. If athletes win the broader lawsuit, the economic structure of major-revenue college sports (basketball, but most importantly the financial golden goose of football) could be turned upside down.

But on a separate track, there is increasing political pressure, both within and beyond the college game, for compensation of players in the major-revenue sports. And just this week the debate on that topic has flared up in the unlikely venue of the progressive blogosphere. Objecting to columns like one by WaPo’s Neil Irwin arguing that Johnny Manziel ought to be able to make whatever money he can from his autographs, New York’s Jonathan Chait offered a defense of college sports “amateurism” that has drawn a lot of fire. Most forceful has been Scott Lemieux, who issued forth with a jeremiad denouncing Chait’s arguments as repeating those of “apologists for sports-labor exploitation for time out of mind,” and comparing “amateurism” to “states’ rights” as an “excuse for an unjust system that cannot be defended on the merits.” Scott all but demands that people like Chait surrender and shut up.

But Chait fired back with an argument that the employer-exploiting-the-worker labor law model makes no sense because colleges make no “profits” and the revenue from the big-money sports mostly goes to subsidize non-profitable college sports, which means most of them, especially those for women. Matt Yglesias sensibly pointed out that while much of the money from revenue sports does go to cross-subsidies, an awful lot manages to stick to the fingers of the football industry, including the coaches who are typically the most highly paid employees in their states.

You get the sense reading all this that much of the heat surrounding the debate is really over issues other than worker exploitation or subsidizing gymnastics: it’s between fans like Chait and those who for one cultural reason or another loathe college sports generally or football in particular.

It’s interesting that the temperature seems to drop a bit when the subject of this debate is not football but basketball. In the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, Louis Barbash addresses the latter sport and makes a worker-exploitation case very similar to Lemieux’s, but also argues that colleges should treat sports like any other campus-related but non-educational enterprise like radio stations or hospitals, offering market-based compensation to their workers and not getting all sanctimonious about “student-athletes.” But it’s significant than in basketball, the stakes in this argument are lower since athletes are only required to attend college for a year (it’s three years for football) before turning pro, and high school stars have ample opportunities to earn salaries overseas if they can’t stand the thought of a year in Lexington or Durham.

The basketball example helps illustrate the somewhat overheated nature of the “exploited worker” model for understanding this issue. From 1971 until 2005, high school basketball stars were free to sign with the NBA without attending college or suffering any delay in eligibility. A small group did so and made it big, while others flamed out quickly. Meanwhile, college basketball did not die. The “exploited workers” we are talking about in big-money sports are not that numerous, and most will get paid before long. It’s not clear the “market value” of the average college football or basketball player is going to grossly exceed the value of the currently available scholarship, and the almost inevitable boost we will soon see in the size of scholarships—which most college coaches, many administrators and certainly Jonathan Chait support—will reduce the “exploitation” significantly. If it’s morally intolerable to “exploit” the super-stars, then pro football could very well relax or eliminate its own delayed-entry rules, and again, college football would survive.

We may soon discover (as I, a college football fan myself, fear) that the brain-injury issue will sweep aside these arguments like so many 1944 property-line disputes in Hiroshima. But while they continue, both sides might want to lighten up. I’ll try to fully detach myself from the TV set where I’m making barking noises while watching the Georgia Bulldogs play before I engage on this topic further. And college sports haterz might want to focus on problems with higher education and the culture of violence that would exist if the whole crazy show was shut down tomorrow.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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