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NCAA Sports: Play For Scholarship -- Exploitation Or Symbiosis?

Pat Forde of ESPN is no friend of the Big Blue Nation.  Many dislike him for his irrational and often personal slaps at Kentucky and its coaches, and for his close association with Traitor Rick.  Those are all perfectly good, partisan reasons to dislike a sportswriter, and as we all know here in Kentucky, sports is a partisan business.

With that said, Forde had this article the other day that made a number of good points about the absurdity of the pay-for-play debate that so many in college sports seem to be hung up on.  Forde takes a swing at the entire idea foisted by so many that not paying college players is a moral outrage, and that college players are little more than indentured servants.

It takes little effort from anyone to debunk that sort of hyperbole, but few seem willing to do it these days.  The idea has become popular among the commentariat, and couching the debate in pseudo-civil rights terms is all the rage.  But the reality is that this issue has come to more closely resemble a political argument than a debate about sports with all its risible unreason and logical inconsistency rather than trenchant examination and commentary.

Consider this paragraph from Forde's article:

If playing for room, board and books were such a colossal injustice, there is a readily available alternative for basketball players intent on a professional career: the NBA Developmental League. Yet almost none of them choose it, despite the fact that the players are paid and there is no academic requirement at all.

Have you noticed that virtually none of the "Pay the athletes now, it's a moral outrage!" crowd even acknowledges the fact that there are alternatives to college?  There are, you know, and the D-league is not the only one.  There are also overseas leagues aplenty who are more than happy to hire a good young player who would be well compensated.

So why don't these players just go straight to the D-league or other professional teams?  Forde explains:

Why? Because they know they've got a better gig as a poor, exploited, unpaid serf in college. They've got access to top-flight coaching, top-flight facilities, medical professionals, a strength and conditioning staff, maximum exposure and all the adulation they can handle. The alternative is earning more spending money in a minor league system playing games in second-rate arenas in front of nobody, with older teammates and less-proven coaches.

This is another thing nobody factors into the value of a scholarship -- the free uniforms, the free medical care, the use of state of the art facilities, arenas, stadiums, etc.  Things we all take for granted that cost schools lots and lots of money.

Forde traces this argument to Chris Webber's whine about not being able to afford a cheeseburger, which he made while accepting thousands of dollars from booster Ed Martin.  That's really where all this complaining comes from, but none of the solutions that anyone is proposing would have kept Webber from taking Martin's money.

The vast majority of college athletes who play in the revenue sports are getting more compensation in a college scholarship than they will get from sports for the rest of their lives.  College represents the high point in the athletics career of easily 90 or even 95% of college athletes.  In other words, for most athletes, a college education is all their athletic skill will ever earn them as a tangible benefit.

The argument, really, is about the exceptional players. It never goes this way, but this is what it can be distilled down to:  But for the unreasonable requirements of professional leagues, these exceptional athletes could be earning many millions of dollars playing pro sports.  So therefore, colleges must find ways to compensate them for the difference, or otherwise it is immoral.

Can anyone but me see the extraordinary one-sidedness of this?  Let me count the ways:

  • Colleges are not responsible for the policies that require the delay of a professional career;
  • Colleges tell every athlete up front that they can earn only a scholarship no matter how many jerseys the university sells, or for how much;
  • College attendance isn't mandatory for anyone, despite what some seem to think, and for most it is a significant financial investment.  But not for college scholarship athletes.
  • Colleges provide the marketing, facilities, uniforms, medical care, professional training, coaching, support and the television opportunity the athlete would not have but for the colleges at no cost to the athlete.  How hard would it be, absent the television contracts negotiated by the colleges, for an athlete to gain exposure?
  • In return for all this, the athletes are asked to accept no outside money only for as long as they attend the school, be it one year or five.

But let's take the do-gooder argument as it is:  Athletes should be paid because colleges are unfairly making millions off their images and name.  It seems not the least bit concerning to the do-gooders that virtually all that money in question goes not to line the pockets of unethical college administrators, but rather it goes into funding other scholarships, and helping athletes that would otherwise have to pay for their education get it at a reduced rate, or free.

What the pay-for-play folks are asking colleges to do is to defund that system in the name of 10% (or even less) of college athletes who are arguably not getting the same return as they would playing for a professional team,  not because the colleges are interfering with their professional dreams, but because professional leagues are doing so.  In other words, they are asking colleges to essentially replace some of the income that is being deferred due to the collective bargaining agreements of the respective sports.   The colleges didn't make these agreements.  Why should they have to pick up the tab?

Another way to look at it is this -- these extraordinary athletes are in fact exploiting the NCAA system.  In order to show off their skills for their future employers, they are accepting a free ride that could as easily go to a person with actual educational rather than near-term business objectives.  As I pointed out, there are other ways for the talented to earn a good living right out of high school, but instead, they take up a college scholarship, not because of the educational opportunity it offers, which is what a school is designed to provide, but rather for the opportunity to be drooled over by NBA or NFL scouts while marking time for their legal entry into professional sports.  Who's exploiting who here?

In the end, the colleges and universities need not do anything.  Sure, there is a lot of lip service being paid to the idea right now, but that's all it really is.  Whether or not a free education, facilities, medical care, training, uniforms and opportunity meets your definition of fair compensation for athletes that are supposed to be amateurs, you have to admit that the problem is not the colleges, but the professional leagues.

So what about the argument that music students, to take one example, are allowed to earn money as a professional and still attend school, but not athletes.  How can this be fair?

It's fair simply because the terms of college athletics are right up front, in your face.  If you want an athletics scholarship or to play in sports, you are required to meet the NCAA definition of an amateur.  The fact that colleges don't require this for other disciplines does not render it immoral or wrong.  The system does have some advantages which the colleges, being good businesspeople, exploit to their advantage, but only on a temporary basis. The "student athletes" also take advantage of the schools, as described above.  Since when is mutual exploitation a bad thing?  In nature, it is called by another name -- "Symbiosis."

In the end, the argument that the scholarship only approach is morally wrong is forced, hyperbolic, and one-sided in my opinion.  Putting it another way, it is unfair to colleges.  If the kids don't like the terms of attendance, they should not go to college.  Nobody is forcing them.  But the NCAA should not stop offering others opportunities at education because a tiny percentage of players are not getting market value.