Sharing the wealth in college sports

Harold Pollack and I are doing Bloggingheads this week, talking about the policy and politics of the budget deficit debate, the failure of the CLASS Act, and the economics of college sports, a topic that has been in the news, driven in large part by Taylor Branch‘s book, The Cartel. On college sports, Harold says

Many people claim that college sports works better under this system than it would under a system in which the stars are openly paid. They note that paying college athletes raises difficult logistical questions: Who would be eligible for workers compensation? Would there be efforts to equalize pay across sports and between men and women? Does the economic value of a full scholarship exceed a fair market wage? Is the answer to this question different for men’s football or women’s soccer?

I don’t know the answers here. I do know that these are the wrong questions. Even if rules promoting amateur competition make things simpler, even if restrictions on player compensation have clear social benefits, we don’t generally accept such arguments to constrain people’s ability to negotiate the terms of their employment. (my emphasis)

I must say I find Harold fairly convincing here, though my first inclination when observing the problems in big time NCAA sports is to think of a way to address some of the economic unfairness while maintaining the nature of the athletic competition (e.g., making sports work better). I think my fanhood makes me think of college sports as a public good of some sort, or at least to identify benefits that sports bring that may not be obvious, and which are spread quite broadly. I do think the answer differs by sport. My thoughts on what to do about football and men’s basketball (the two most lucrative sports)

  • Scholarships should cover the full cost of attendance
  • All players in these two sports should get a modest “spending money” stipend
  • Star players should receive a share of the money earned from the sale of their likeness and/or jersey

This proposal is imperfect, but could represent a midpoint between the current reality and viewing the issue purely as one of economics and collective bargaining as Harold has framed it. It would provide some extra spending money (in addition to the value of a scholarship) for all players in the two major revenue sports, while acknowledging the reality that superstars generate a great deal of money, and that they should share in it via a market-based mechanism. It should be an interesting discussion as Harold and I flesh out some of these issues on Thursday.


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