So many commentators recently have used their corporate-powered megaphones to frame the case for pay-for-play that readers might wonder if another perspective existed. At last, however, some pushback has appeared.
The entire Division I Men’s Basketball Championship seemed to become a giant hook from which writers could hang their the-system-is-corrupt, why-don’t-you-just-pay-the-players observations. The latest came from ESPN.com’s Jemele Hill, a commentator who has demonstrated a flair for hyperbole over the years. On Tuesday, she called for student-athletes to boycott competition at some point.
“If college athletes want to see wholesale changes, someone needs to step up and be Norma Rae,” wrote Hill. “…Instead of allowing coaches and middlemen to use them for short-term gains, college athletes should unite to break the system that is oppressing them.”
Is the NCAA the textile mill owner to Norma Rae’s student-athlete?
I say no, but you would probably expect that coming from an NCAA employee.
Let’s go to some other sources.
First, there’s The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who provided a strong counter in “The Incoherent Case For Paying Student-Athletes.” Chait was especially effective in challenging the concept of “mandatory amateurism.”
“First of all, there’s no ‘mandatory amateurism,’ ” wrote Chait. “There’s nothing stopping anybody from starting a football or basketball minor league that attracts talented 18 year olds, paying its players, and then having some of those players go on to make greater sums in the NFL or the NBA. Why doesn’t such a league exist? Because there’s no demand for it.”
Responding to fellow writer Matthew Yglesias, Chait continued:
“The truth is that most college athletics programs lose money and are subsidized by the university. A handful of very successful programs, mostly football and men’s basketball, do make money, but they use that money to fund money-losing athletics programs, and therefore avoid (or minimize) having to get subsidies from the rest of the university.
“I’ve never been clear on exactly what Yglesias is proposing. Is he saying that only athletes in revenue-generating sports should be paid? Or is he saying that all college athletes should be paid? If it’s the latter − and Yglesias focuses his argument entirely on the merits of paying student-athletes at revenue-generating sports − I don’t know what his reason is. The women’s cross country team at Connecticut works just as hard as the men’s basketball team. The difference between the two are: (1) The men’s basketball team gets to play on television and be famous; (2) the proceeds from the television contract subsidize sports like women’s cross country, and (3) the men’s basketball players have a higher chance to become professional athletes.”
On Monday, The Washington Times included a column from Deron Snyder with the following observations:
“The NCAA administers 88 championships in 23 sports, but let’s be honest. All this talk is really about football and men’s basketball, the ‘revenue’ sports that foot the athletic department’s bills at most schools. (But be careful if you’re the one who tells UConn’s women’s basketball players that they won’t get a check while the football players will.)
“Fine, you say? Just men’s hoops and football, because between the tournament and the BCS bowls, there should be plenty of loot left for the athletes?
“OK. But even if you elect to forsake non-revenue sports (what, other athletes don’t work as hard or need money as much as point guards and tailbacks?) every school isn’t a Texas or Ohio State, with athletic departments that produce nine-figure incomes easier than media guides. Do you really pay the basketball and football players at Texas, but not Texas Southern? Don’t the players at Ohio State and Ohio University have more similarities than differences?
“If you insist on proceeding, more problems persist. Kemba Walker and the last man on UConn’s bench commit equal time and effort during the week. Auburn’s third-string tackle is part of the team as much as Cam Newton. Would you really pay some teammates and not others, or pay stars and reserves an equal wage? That’s goes against the American way. And would refunds be in order if a program goes into the red?”
The public got into the act at the Indianapolis Star. Reader Roger Howard took on the paper’s editorial board, which had recently editorialized for a light version of pay for play. Wrote Howard: “Why pay student-athletes who do something they love and not student government leaders who also selflessly devote time and energy in helping create and maintain meaningful campus life experiences?”
You get the idea. Commentators who want to professionalize college sports have routinely oversimplified the issue, often linking the enterprise with “sweatshops,” “indentured servitude” and even “slavery.”
The system definitely has its excesses and some adjustments are needed. But these overheated comparisons simply aren’t credible. It’s good to see thoughtful challenges starting to emerge.