As we approach this year’s Final Four matchups, we can rest easy knowing that, at least maybe, the Loyola-Chicago players are not on their school’s payroll.
With the FBI’s rather late arrival onto the scene, the question over blue-chip NCAA recruits has now officially shifted from “are college athletes paid?” to “should college athletes be paid?”
Everybody seems to have their own take. In his “Main Street” column in the Wall Street Journal on March 13, William McGurn tossed his hat into the ring with an interesting commentary.
McGurn argues that university presidents need to take action, pointing to the Ivy League as proof of his proposal’s effectiveness. What McGurn is referencing, I suppose, is the “Presidents’ Agreement.” In the 1916 agreement, Harvard, Yale and Princeton declared that “the members of the group reaffirm their prohibition of athletic scholarships. Athletes shall be admitted as students and awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.” If the presidents of academic stalwarts like Michigan and Northwestern do as Yale did, McGurn claims, all would be well.
Yet this is a false equivalency.
Michigan has 28,983 students and 27 varsity teams; Yale has 5,453 students and, as it might surprise you, 35 varsity teams. Therefore, Michigan can maintain its academic integrity even if it compromises its standards for athletes because athletes form a small island in the ocean of its student body. For Yale, on the other hand, this is not the case. Recruiting solely on athletic merit would dilute academic standards.
Moreover, to ask Michigan to do now as Yale did 50 years ago is to overlook the fact that the revenue Michigan generates from its football and basketball teams is exponentially more than that of Yale football accrued in the first decades of the 20th century. So, if emulating the Ivy League isn’t the answer, what is?
What the NCAA has to offer athletes is an education. But what does that mean for someone who aims to attend school for a year? Some would say, just pay the athletes and call it a day. But here I have to agree with McGurn: “The economists’ answer is untenable, because the appeal of big-time college sports is built on the fiction that the athletes are, in fact, students.” If we paid college athletes, they would not be amateurs, they would not be college athletes. To pay them would not be simply to redefine what it means to be a college athlete, it would entirely change the narrative of professional sports, creating, in essence, college minor-league teams. Nobody watches the AHL or D-League playoffs. (It is now called the G League, but 90 percent of readers didn’t know that — and that’s the point).
So why do leagues force athletes to attend college at all? One year of college does not affect your preparation for the NBA. Are we to believe that Anthony Davis became a Renaissance man from the education he purportedly got in his one “year” at Kentucky? Do not fool yourselves.
Athletes should not be forced to go to school. The cream of the crop would enter their respective professional leagues. The rest would go to school. Everybody would be a true student-athlete then. And the fiction that college sports feature students who, when they are not hitting the books are hitting the boards, would actually be the reality.
The onus would then rest on professional leagues.
A counterargument might be that schools will merely compete over and pay for the best of the rest. The thing is, part of the reason colleges pay their athletes is a result of opportunity costs. One need only look at Emmanuel Mudiay, whom SMU — a school convicted of paying its athletes — tried and failed to lure away from China where he played in lieu of NCAA hoops.
Universities, therefore, pay their recruits in order to diminish the cost of what athletes are missing by not playing overseas. But there would be and is no opportunity cost for inferior athletes, since Chinese leagues have no interest in second-class sportspeople.
Moreover, athletes who will one day go professional hold the power of demanding payment because, in reality, schools have absolutely nothing to offer them. Second-class sportspeople will not eventually turn into professionals. They need college because they need a degree. Thus, they need college, not the other way around.
One final note: if all college athletes attended their schools as students who were seeking a degree, we would rid ourselves of the one-and-dones. And while complaints about that belong in a different article, just think about how much you hated Grayson Allen. True, you would have hated him within one season; but getting to watch four years of him tripping people and crying, we were able to fully develop our detestation.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org