Politics & Policy

Championship Monday, Brought to You by the Oppressive Progressives at the NCAA

(Helgidinson/Dreamstime)

Tonight, two storied college-basketball programs — Villanova and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — square off for this year’s NCAA Championship. It’s the culmination of March Madness, one of the last truly national television experiences, where work stops and everyone seems to be talking about the same event.

In an era when live sports is often the last bulwark against consumers “cutting the cord” and relying entirely on cheaper streaming services to get their home entertainment à la carte, the value of the NCAA tournament is only increasing. In 2010, CBS Sports and Turner Sports signed a 14 year, $10.8 billion contract with the NCAA granting them exclusive broadcast rights through 2024. Already, there’s talk of a contract extension, with even more money flowing into the NCAA’s coffers.

No one — least of all a free-market conservative — should begrudge the NCAA its bounty. After all, it’s win/win. CBS and Turner reap the advertising revenue while the NCAA gets compensated for putting a beloved product on the floor. No one begrudges the pro-sports leagues their television deals. So what’s wrong with the college game getting a piece of the action?

Well, more than you’d think, actually. While the association itself — and the coaches and college administrators — reap enormous financial rewards, the young “student-athletes” who create the product are barred from sharing in its profits. They can receive an athletic scholarship and a modest stipend, but they can’t be otherwise compensated for their athletic prowess. They can’t even use their names or images to make additional money.

The alleged justification for a labyrinth of regulations that serves mainly to vacuum all available cash to the NCAA and campus officials is a desire to ensure that student-athletes are students first and athletes second. But anyone who has even passing familiarity with the reality of big-time college sports knows that athletics comes first.

Take North Carolina, for example. One of the South’s most prestigious public universities, it was so committed to the “athlete” part of student-athlete, that it essentially conducted an 18-year campaign of academic fraud, in which up to 1,500 athletes were steered to “no-show” or mere “paper” courses, where high grades were guaranteed “no matter” the athlete’s work. So much for receiving a meaningful college education. Keeping the players on the field was the only thing that mattered.

Yet even if college coaches play by the rules (and that’s a big “if”), playing basketball or football is more than a full-time job. Practices last hours, road trips require players to miss class, and staying in game shape means investing lots of time outside of “official” commitments.

The best athletes — limited by collective-bargaining agreements from entering pro leagues too young — use college as a year or two of uncompensated minor-league play, risking career-ending injury while enriching their coach, their school, their conference, and the NCAA itself.

Most fans are inclined to sneer at the notion that NCAA athletes are receiving a raw deal. After all, they’re getting a free college education and at least 15 minutes of fame. Why should they complain?

#share#But it’s worth considering what they aren’t getting: the unfettered freedom enjoyed by every other college student in America. Imagine two different students. We’ll call one “John.” He’s in the top 0.1 percent of student programmers, a kid who’s been coding since he was eight years old. We’ll call the other kid “Josh.” He’s in the top 0.1 percent of student athletes, and college scouts have marked him for basketball greatness since grade school.

When John walks on campus, he is a free agent. With his free time completely unregulated by the school, he can pursue any use of his skills he likes. He has a full scholarship, and the only real condition for keeping that scholarship is that he maintain a certain, minimal GPA. The rest of his time is his. He can moonlight for Apple or Google. He can work with a professor. He can develop apps and court venture capitalists. He can work for the school at a salary he independently negotiates. He can even leave and pursue his career before graduating without restriction.

Josh gets the same full scholarship when, if he came from a disadvantaged background — as so many athletes do — he would have been eligible for financial aid anyway. But he has to maintain a minimum GPA while fully satisfying the requirements of a college coach who will ultimately demand more than 40 hours per week of additional work.

Conservatives should be leading the charge against NCAA exploitation and hypocrisy. It is antithetical to free-market values.

While John can use the talent that got him his scholarship to earn unlimited additional funds during college, Josh cannot. He can’t even use his name, image, or likeness for even the smallest personal gain. His summer jobs, to the extent that NCAA rules and off-season conditioning commitments allow him to hold them, will be heavily scrutinized. And to top it off, every time he takes the court, he’s risking painful or debilitating injuries that could end his shot at a pro career.

If you think that’s a small price to pay for the chance at NBA or NFL riches, remember: That chance is infinitesimally small. The vast majority of student-athletes, even at major-conference schools, never make it. As the NCAA itself is so fond of pointing out, most of them “go pro in something other than sports.” At the height of their athletic achievement, they are denied any share of the wealth they generate.

Oh, and did I mention that the NCAA is imposing these rules on athletes who are disproportionately poor and minority? It’s much like one of our progressive-dominated urban enclaves, where a small, rich liberal elite maintains economic and political power by exploiting the votes and labor of a large black and Hispanic underclass. The NCAA is Chicago.

There are, however, signs of dissent and reform. In 2011, Taylor Branch penned a widely read Atlantic essay that took on the “shame of college sports.” ESPN’s Jay Bilas is a prominent, relentless critic of the NCAA, and the association’s exploitation of athlete names and likenesses is now subject to legal challenge.

But conservatives should be leading the charge against NCAA exploitation and hypocrisy. It is antithetical to free-market values. It allows a progressive cultural elite to exploit minorities by adopting fashionably liberal positions. And it helps prop up America’s corrupt, bloated, and discriminatory higher-education system.

Free markets are the only solution. Let the NCAA run its tournaments and set the rules of the game. Let universities run their athletic programs and set the codes of conduct for players. And let the players earn money like any other college student. So long as they achieve academically, perform athletically, and live as responsible, law-abiding citizens, what business is it of anyone else’s what they do on their own time?

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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