With March Madness 2013 finishing up, the contrast between the half billion dollars of college basketball revenue versus the amount paid to the players (nothing) has never been starker. By now there are plenty of people pushing the idea of paying college players. And of course I think it’s a good idea. But an interesting way to frame this discussion is to turn the question on it’s head. Why aren’t we paying college players already? What’s stopping us?
As context, I’m old enough to remember debates about whether it was going to ruin the Olympics if professionals were allowed to participate. This debate continued into the 1990s. Fortunately we’ve come a long way since Jim Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic decathlon medals for earning money playing football for $2 a game. The point is the arguments against paying Olympic athletes from back then are the same ones you hear right now about college athletes. It would ruin the purity of the sport. It would corrupt the game.
As an aging runner, I also recall how big name marathon runners from the 1970s like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter couldn’t be paid. Though the rules were eventually softened to where they could open shoes stores. This allowed them to make money on something at least tangentially related to what they were best in the world at.
Nowadays limiting the Olympics to “amateurs”, or prohibiting runners from getting paid for anything related to running seems crazy. So what’s stopping us from doing this for college athletes?
I’d speculate the reason has to do with why we watch sports in the first place. We love sports because it’s ritualized war. Like war, it’s about loyalty to your tribe, self-sacrifice and honor. These are the virtues of the soldier, which explains why sports are uniformly understood to build character. No pain, no gain. Dedication. Teamwork. And sports are one of the few areas left in modern life where we can wholeheartedly embrace those tribal virtues without getting mocked. If this speculation is correct, then we can see why the ideal of the unpaid athlete is so deep-seated. We want our proxy-soldier athletes to sacrifice for love of the tribe, not money.
With that said, there are intellectual reasons for paying college athletes which should appeal to both liberals and conservatives. For liberals, the argument is about victims. Most college athletes don’t make the pros. College will be their only time on center stage. As former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown said: “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.” For conservatives, the argument is about government enforced cartels. Though the NCAA, colleges have created a government endorsed cartel which forces athletes worth millions to not get paid. It’s anti-capitalism.
Of course, paying college athletes will have problems. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We can only choose the option with the fewest flaws. And if you ask athletes, of course they would nearly all take some pay. The universities are naturally partisans for the status quo, given the fact they get all the money under today’s system. That leaves the fans. What do the fans want? Many want the illusion their beloved student athletes get good educations, and sacrifice themselves solely for school honor. Undoubtedly that’s true for some. But it’s also undoubtedly true that the ones hurt most by the current system are the athletes, who never see even a sliver of the billions their efforts generate.
If we really love our college athletes, why don’t we show them some respect by paying them for what they do so well?