If you’re a fan of a big-time college-sports program, you should be very afraid. The FBI is on the prowl. This week, the Department of Justice announced it had indicted ten people — including four assistant basketball coaches — as part of a wide-ranging probe that alleged a scheme to bribe coaches to direct recruits to specific basketball programs and then to pressure players to sign with specific shoe and apparel companies. The allegations included claims that at least one prize recruit was paid $100,000 to sign with the Louisville Cardinals.
The university fired coach Rick Pitino, and though few people outside the greater Louisville metropolitan area mourn his demise, millions more college-sports fans wonder when the next basketball shoe will drop. After all, the FBI’s continuing its investigations, and it has warned, “We have your playbook.”
None of this is surprising. All of it should highlight the need for radical reform. After all, in college sports we see the old collision — between the socialist Utopianism of the central planner and the entrepreneurial will of the individual. It’s long been puzzling to me how many conservatives support the NCAA model of athletic exploitation. Karl Marx once famously proclaimed, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The NCAA corollary is, if anything, a more corrupt, “From each according to his marketability, to each according to our whim.” “Need” has nothing to do with it.
In practice, the few revenue-producing sports subsidize the less-popular programs, all while funneling billions of dollars into the NCAA’s coffers. This money funds a vast bureaucratic apparatus whose chief function is to make sure that all available money goes where the NCAA wants it to go — to the NCAA and to its members schools. Their profit motive is sacred. Their greed is boundless. The people who actually create the product? Well, they have to be content with scholarships that are worth far, far less than their economic value in a truly free market.
Let’s be very clear about this. The NCAA has created a special class of student, the so-called “student-athlete,” and put a straitjacket on them that applies to no other students. Outside of NCAA-permitted stipends, student-athletes can’t get paid for their performance, and they don’t even truly own their own name and likeness. If you’re virtually any other class of student, you can work for the school at a market rate. You can work for outside employers at a market rate. You can market your name. Not athletes. They get what the NCAA says they get — and nothing more.
Indeed, if you’re a college athlete who plays by the rules, you’ll often spend your entire academic career as one of the poorest students on a wealthy, upper-middle-class campus, all during a time when you might actually be achieving your peak earning potential in a truly free market. Your more-wealthy classmates will cheer your every move, they’ll wear jerseys with your number, and small children will beg you for your autograph. Local businesses would love to have you advertise their product. And only a fraction of you will achieve your pro-sports dreams. Instead, you’ll play the game, risk your body on the court or field, and then fade into obscurity with (maybe) a college degree that the poorer athletes could have obtained for free or nearly free anyway.
And does anyone think, for one moment, that this vast NCAA bureaucracy is maintaining actual amateurism? No, the profit motive endures. The best programs have transformed themselves into virtual prep schools for the pro leagues. Everyone knows the players attend to give themselves the best chance to prepare for the NBA or NFL. Everyone knows the college degree is beside the point — and that’s for schools that play by the rules. Other programs wink at under-the-table deals and sometimes actively facilitate agent or booster access to athletes. The schemes are elaborate, and they’re poorly kept secrets, but they all follow one of the iron rules of capitalism — the profit motive finds a way.
If a booster wants to contribute to a player’s salary, let him. Make the NCAA honest.
There’s an easy alternative. Let’s replace the vast NCAA rule book with one line: “NCAA student-athletes must be enrolled at the school and in good academic standing when practicing with an NCAA-sanctioned team or playing in an NCAA-sanctioned event.” That’s it. That’s not a rulebook, it’s a notecard. It’s a slightly longer way of saying, “Treat student-athletes like all other students.” If a school wants to pay players a market rate, let it. If a local car dealer wants to use an athlete for a commercial, that’s fine. If a booster wants to contribute to a player’s salary, let him. Make the NCAA honest. Properly compensate the people who generate the wealth.
Rich schools will excel, as they do now. The storied programs will throw money at sports, as they do now. If anything, though, the game will improve. Players will have an incentive to stay just a bit longer rather than gambling on an elusive pro career. Perhaps we’ll watch March Madness games where players can actually shoot, where the ball moves like it does in the pro game. And when upsets do occur — and they will — won’t they be more delicious? Many schools won’t pay at all. The scholarship will be all they can offer. Sports just don’t generate the fame or revenues to sustain salaries or ad deals. But they’ll still get players, those players will occasionally topple the Blue Devils, and those victories will be glorious.
Moreover, by bringing the profit motive into the sunlight, you’ll spare players from exposure to the dishonest, sleazy characters that populate the black market in college talent. Unlawful trades don’t attract the best class of person, and bringing a free market to college sports will at least partially supplant the hucksters with legitimate and ethical businessmen.
There are two ways to make the NCAA more honest. You can do what the FBI is doing now and use the power of federal law enforcement to help sustain NCAA socialism, or you can embrace the free market, liberate players, and let them earn a fair wage for the labor they give their schools. I prefer the free market. But then again, I’m a conservative, and conservatives understand that socialism doesn’t work — not even in college sports.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.