Wrong Wrong Wrong

04.02.13

Kevin Ware and Market Value of College Athletes

The horrific injury to Louisville hoopster Kevin Ware, which I happened to miss while I was watching the game because I wasn't looking at the TV at that moment, and which I vow never to see, has sparked off another round of griping about how these athletes are barely a cut above chattel labor.

Critics are citing a recent report apparently finding that college football players and men's basketball players are being  denied $6 billion in pay from 2011 to 2015, i.e., an estimate of their collective fair-market value. Apparently Ware's fair-market value is $1.6 million a year.

This is just really nuts. Some of the people advancing this argument are friends of mine, so I won't name names and I won't use red-hot language here, but let me just say this. I can't help but notice that most of the people who are making this case went to schools where athletics are an afterthought.

Meanwhile, we have two liberal pundit cultural elists, two, who went to schools where sports rule. Jon Chait and my good self. Now Chait went to an excellent school, Michigan, and I went to a so-so one, West Virginia, because I grew up in Morgantown and back in my day going to a great school just wasn't the obsession it's become, and I had no plans at that point to join the cultural elite anyway. But that's an aside.

My point is this. You have two of us who actually know the cultures of these campuses, who have known and been friends with football players and basketball players (at least I assume Chait was friends with some; you sort of can't help but be at most such campuses). And the two of us say that paying college athletes their "fair-market value" is a batty idea.

I would accept paying them a salary, as if these were basic university jobs--you know, $1,000 a month or something. And the same pay for every one of them, from the star quarterback to the guy who'll never play a down in four years. I could see that, so they have some spending money.

But fair-market value? How many 18- or 19-year-olds would make good decisions with $1.6 million a year? Or even a "mere" $300,000? That's madness. But more than that, once you're paying these kids that much, in short order will arrive the things that follow from big money. They will be cut. Traded. Free agency will evolve. Et cetera. So a star might spend his freshman year at Texas and sophomore year at USC and junior year at Alabama and senior year nowhere, if he underperformed or was injured.

Now, if you went to Vassar or an Ivy something like that, you think: great! But if you went to a school where the major sports are vital to the place's identity, you think--no; you know--that this is utter insanity.

Chait wrote a while ago:

The notion that we should pay college athletes has been floating around for years, and it can attach itself to any sordid event involving college sports. The trouble is that, while college athletics does need reform, paying players bears no relationship to the purported goal of helping protect college athletes. The abuses in college athletics – and they are real – stem from the growing imposition of market forces. Institutionalizing that ethos would almost certainly make all those abuses worse. That’s why the constantly expressed demand that we put college athletes on professional salary is so ill-formed. It is not so much a plan as an expression of free-floating contempt for college sports.

Correct. I would add that the notion that these young men are exploited is really wrong and, again, could only be advanced by people who know nothing of the culture. And I'd add that while horror stories (athletes getting arrested, etc.) make big news, people never hear about and thus never think about thousands and thousands of young men who've avoided arrest and gotten their degrees, young men who would never have had a chance to go to college otherwise.

There's a lot wrong with the NCAA, Lord knows. A lot. But these "fixes" would make everything much worse.