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Pay college athletes on the open market

Updated: May 20, 2014 6:04AM



Division I college football players are professionals. They are given room, board and health care in exchange for their time, and served by tutors, coaches and trainers. They are paid only if they work. If a star receiver decided to focus on academics and scale back football practice, he would be dropped from the team and lose his scholarship. His “student” status is a cover for the university to avoid paying him as much as he would earn on a competitive market.

In amateur sports, the players are unpaid. The coaches are usually unpaid as well, or else modestly paid to promote exercise, community spirit and friendly competition. In amateur sports the competitors do not spend a great deal of time practicing, since they are playing for fun and have work or school full-time. Division I college football is not an amateur sport.

But college football players earn little for their work, because the employers collude through the NCAA to cap wages.

If university departments all agreed to cap the pay of new hires, they would be sued and fined. Anti-trust law requires that they compete, allowing aspiring young professors to benefit from their own marketable talents.

Anti-competitive behavior is just as harmful to athletes. But the NCAA cartel evades the law by mendaciously classifying full-time athletes as students.

In this economically unjust environment, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter has gained legal standing to form a union with his teammates. If the law will not come to the players’ aid by breaking the NCAA pay cap (an ongoing lawsuit may do so), they want to use the union in a tug-of-war with the university to marginally improve their pay.

But unionization cannot fully deliver economic justice in the sense of allowing players to reap the rewards of their own talent and labor. Unions typically negotiate uniform group benefits — in this case, they want health insurance for football-related injuries, a reasonable request. But the benefits will always be limited if they must apply equally to all players. Complicating matters, the current allowance for unionization applies only to private universities, not state schools.

Rather than fight through years of lawsuits, the NCAA should take leadership and change its rules to allow schools to pay players on an open market. There are reasonable rules and regulations that the NCAA may impose as a sports league, for instance requiring that contracts are signed for a minimum of a year or that players can play only four years in the league. None of these should prevent a school willing to pay a million dollars for a star quarterback from doing so.

One objection to the idea of a free market is that it may upset the competitive balance of college football. What competitive balance? Teams from the SEC have won seven of the last eight title games and there is no pretense of parity. At least in a competitive market, fans willing to buy tickets will watch better teams.

Another objection is that schools will not be willing to pay athletes in less-popular sports. But that’s fine; the existing NCAA pay cap has no effect there anyway, so little would change if those sports were opened up to competitive wage bidding. What would wreck the less-popular sports is wholesale unionization that required equal pay or benefits to all athletes.

A final objection is that explicit professionalism would corrupt the spirit of the game. If you want to watch true amateurs compete for the love of the game, there are spirited Division III teams all around. But if you want to watch professional-level football in a professionally sized stadium, you should support paying the players whose full-time job it is to entertain you.

Salim Furth is a senior policy analyst in macroeconomics at The Heritage Foundation.



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