Friday, February 8, 2013

The NCAA Has Issues, But It's Not Amateurism

Who’s more valuable - the performer, or the owner of the stage on which the performer performs? 

It’s an age old question, but has been at the forefront of the sports world after the recent NBA and NHL lockouts.  It’s also the underlying issue in the professional commentariats ongoing outrage towards the NCAA it's principle of amateurism.  The NCAA doesn’t pay its athletes but makes billions from their efforts.  Isn’t that just terrible?

No, not really.

Did Andrew Luck and Derrick Rose generate megabucks for their respective schools and the NCAA?  Absolutely.  Did Andrew Luck and Derrick Rose get a cut of that revenue during their combined four years “working” for the NCAA and their schools?  Other than free education, no.  Did Andrew Luck and Derrick Rose benefit financially because of their involvement in NCAA events?  Immensely.  

Let’s not cry for Andrew or Derrick, or any other NCAA superstar (the case for paying college athletes can only be made for the elite basketball or football players at a handful of schools – there is no justification for paying a baseball player, a cross-country runner or a field hockey player). 

First and foremost, these superstars, and thousands of non-superstars across all NCAA sports, are compensated for their efforts by receiving a free college education.  What they choose to do with that opportunity is irrelevant - it’s an opportunity nonetheless.  Against the backdrop of the billions being made by the NCAA and big time athletic programs, a scholarship may seem inconsequential, but for the vast majority of NCAA athletes, this represents a huge benefit, and a benefit commensurate with the effort and revenue produced (if any).  

The cost to attend Stanford - all covered by a full scholarship - is almost $60,000 per year.  Therefore, a 19 or 20 year old athlete with a full ride to Stanford is “making” almost $60,000 a year in exchange for their athletic talents.  Sure, it’s paid-in-kind with credits toward a college degree, but it’s still $60,000 less than what their classmate, who is not a star athlete, has to pay (or borrow) for those same credits.  It’s bothersome when some people disregard this fact when complaining about the lack of compensation for NCAA athletes.  What did you make when you were 19?  
Secondly, and much more importantly, these star athletes are given a huge stage from which to advertise their value to future employers.  It’s no different than an intern at a production company, music studio or bank, except that those interns would never make anywhere close to $60,000 per year. They are happy to work for free because they benefit by making themselves more marketable to paying employers.  NCAA athletes should feel the same way.    

Without the exposure generated by starting for Stanford for three years, does anyone think Andrew Luck would have been picked first in the NFL draft, reaping the rewards that come along with that selection – $22 million over four years?  

Without electrifying performances on the huge stage that is the Final Four, does anyone think that a few months after his freshman year Derrick Rose would be the first pick in the NBA draft and would sign a $10 million two-year contract?   

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Rose was allowed to enter the NBA straight out of high school.  Let’s also assume that his amazing year at Memphis and electrifying run to the National Championship game only increase his draft slot 5 spots (Rose was considered the 5th best prospect in the country his senior year at Simone High School in Chicago).  The 5th pick in that draft, Kevin Love, signed a two-year $6.5 million contract.  Essentially, the NCAA, and the exposure it provided Rose, made him $3.5 million dollars richer.  Even if we think he might have been the #2 pick straight out of high school, he still "earned" $1.1 million dollars by playing just a single season for the University of Memphis (the #2 pick, Michael Beasley, signed a two-year $8.9 million contract).

The same logic works all the way down the talent chain, and we would argue that the biggest beneficiaries are actually those who's college careers open the door for a professional contract.  A minimum salary in the NFL or NBA is 10-20 times larger than the starting salary of an average college graduate.  

Amateurism in the NCAA isn't going away, and it shouldn't.  In addition to the principled points above, the practical (who gets paid, how much, and where does it come from) and legal (Title IX) issues make any discussion around paying athletes a waste of time.    

The NCAA is dysfunctional, no doubt, particularly their draconian efforts to enforce amateurism, but this dysfunction is a result of incompetence and arrogance, not the principle of amateurism.


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