The NCAA and Worker Exploitation

I took my blog post from earlier this week and expanded it to a full-blown column on the NCAA and its efforts to never, ever let its athletes make a dime from their skills.  An excerpt:

University presidents with lucrative athletic programs will do about anything to distract attention from just how much money their Universities are making off of essentially unpaid labor.  Their favorite mantra is to claim they are holding up an ideal of “amateurism.”

The whole amateur ideal is just a tired holdover from the British aristocracy, the blue-blooded notion that a true “gentleman” did not actually work for a living but sponged off the local gentry while perfecting his golf or polo game.  These ideas permeated British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, which in turn served as the model for many US colleges.  Even the Olympics, though,  finally gave up the stupid distinction of amateur status years ago, allowing the best athletes to compete whether or not someone has ever paid them for anything.

In fact, were we to try to impose this same notion of “amateurism” in any other part of society, or even any other corner of University life, it would be considered absurd.  Do we make an amateur distinction with engineers?  Economists?  Poets?

When Brooke Shields was at Princeton, she still was able to perform in the “amateur” school shows despite the fact she had already been paid as an actress.   Engineering students are still allowed to study engineering at a University even if a private party pays them for their labor over the summer.  Students don’t get kicked out of the school glee club just because they make money at night singing in a bar.  The student council president isn’t going to be suspended by her school if she makes money over the summer at a policy think tank.

In fact, of all the activities on campus, the only one a student cannot pursue while simultaneously getting paid is athletics.  I am sure that it is just coincidence that athletics happens to be, by orders of magnitude, far more lucrative to universities than all the other student activities combined.


  1. DrTorch:

    Worse still. Those students are indentured servants. They can't transfer, w/o forfeiting some of their playing opportunity (albeit unpaid playing opportunity).

    Coaches can leave, players can't.

    Any other student can transfer, and they won't pay a penalty (except coursework may not transfer just right.)

    And we're told all of these restrictions are in place so that schools don't "cheat." Meanwhile undefeated teams get ignored from multi-million dollar BCS football games. Teams with stellar records get snubbed from the multi-million dollar tournament.

    Who's really cheating?

  2. bob sykes:

    Kirk Herbstreit, former OSU quarterback and current ESPN commentator, pointed out the real reason for NCAA resistance to paying athletes. Under Title IX, if you pay the revenue-generating men's football and basketball athletes, you have to pay everyone the same money, and that would bankrupt every athletic department.

  3. marco73:

    Well, just look at the news today for poor Jim Tressel, head coach at Ohio State. He blatantly lies about players violating rules for 9 months while he leads the team to a big time BCS bowl game payday. After he is painted into a corner, he volunteers for a 2 game suspension.
    The players all get a 5 game suspension. The players appeal their suspensions, and all the appeals are denied. So the coach volunteers to take the same 5 game suspension as his players. The players have to pay back some hokey fines, only a few hundred dollars each, for selling personal belongings from previous playing appearances.
    The coach gives up a bonus he received for a successful season, but gets to keep his high paying job and mega salary and endorsements. Sports pundits are falling all over themselves praising the coach's integrity and how he cares so much for his players that he is willing to take the same 5 game suspension.

    Really? I can lie and cheat for months to save my own skin, throw my employees under the bus in public, keep most of my salary while my employees are fined, keep my job, take a half year vacation at full pay, and be PRAISED as a great guy? Where do I sign up for that?

  4. Bearster:

    Bob: what, you mean pervasive government-imposed controls in the market have perverse effects? Say it ain't so!

  5. DrTorch:


    Tressel is getting torn up pretty badly in the ABJ and Plain Dealer. Of course, they aren't going to go so far as to stop covering Ohio State football, nor will they own any of their own lapses in honesty...but I don't see him getting much praise from his local media.

  6. Scott:

    I think the data on the college's expenses is inflated. They credit tuition and fees in the costs column, but they aren't really paying that out, and in most cases they aren't losing that revenue from another source. Dorm space and meals are actual costs, but that tuition number is bunk.

    Stanford is listed on the ESPN site with the highest tuition expenses. They claim almost 16 million in tuition expenses for about 300 athletes or %20 of expenses. The real number is surely much lower. How many extra teachers did Stanford hire to deal with these 75 additions per class year to their 7,000 undergrads? Did Standford really accept that many fewer students to reduce their enrollment by 300 to make slots for the athletes?

    Finally - the number is based on the athletes paying the full MSRP tuition price. How many kids at Stanford actually pay full freight? I doubt that many. The tuition prices at many schools, and most of the top private schools is like a hotel room rack rate or an airline seat listing that no-one actually pays.

    The schools are treating the tuition numbers like a concert with a fixed number of seats that they didn't sell to someone else and so they credit that cost to the program. The truth is that it's a general admission concert that didn't sell out anyway, and so letting a few in for free doesn't cost anything (dorm rooms and crappy meals notwithstanding).

  7. Mark:

    I would not say they are unpaid, they are underpaid. Now I realize many players there really don't want to go to college, but free college tuition plus room and board amount to about 35K a year. What is the value of these athletes? More than they are getting but probably not in the million dollar range. I would guess the average salary if free market salaries were allowed, would be about 60K minus room board and tuition. So about 25K per year.

  8. Mark:

    Just a note about my post above. I am a free market guy, and want these players to get what they deserve for generating revenue for their colleges.

    Just was pointing out that the rewards they would get, would not be as much as many people assume.

  9. chuck martel:

    Part of the complaint against the Ohio State football players was that they sold performance awards like championship rings. The concept of private property includes the right to freely transfer it to another. If there is an NCAA stipulation against voluntary exchange of player awards, then in fact the awards are not the property of the recipients. Of course, after the players have exhausted their eligibility they are free to sell the items, since their collegiate careers are over and the NCAA has no power over them.

  10. caseyboy:

    Big bucks in college football. Way too much money to do it right. Major league baseball has some problems, but I do like the farm system. Players get paid based on skills. The really good ones make it to the majors.

    Pro-football doesn't want the costs of a farm system and the colleges don't want to let go of the bucks.

    Have to find a way to let the players earn money without becoming ineligible.

  11. DrTorch:

    Caseyboy: There are plenty of opportunities to do that. The CFL for one. Former AZ Cardinal Eric Swann played semi-pro ball before being drafted to the NFL. He's not the only one to skip college.

    I don't know if the UFL has age restrictions or not, but that may be another option.

    And of course basketball players have all sorts of choices around the world.

    So some of this is the players choice. They choose the lavish attention and affection of college football fans as part of the compensation they receive. (It's excessive for Ohio State.)

    What disgusts me is the indentured servitude of the players, and the restrictions the NCAA places on teams to keep many from accessing the most lucrative payouts.

  12. bob sykes:

    Excessive attention to football at OSU? Surely you jest. We are a world-renowned research institute.

    Bruce Hooley, a local radio sports commentator, was fired this week for criticizing Tressel and the OSU administration. And Kirk Herbstreit announced that he is leaving Ohio because of fan harassment of him and his family. It seems he didn't rank OSU No. 1 on his ballot.

  13. David Zetland:

    Thorsten Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (which I gave up on; too many elegant phrases) covered this theme in 1899: that "real men" don't need to make money in sport...

    Nothing new here, move along :)

  14. drB:

    Coyote -

    some sports are definitely lucrative for universities, but overall the athletics bleeds money, and a LOT of it. Only in a few schools athletics overall is cash-positive without subsidies from Universities. I think one of the reason as to why tuition skyrockets is increased dumping of money into athletics. For example, at FSU the only program which was not cut in the latest budget crisis is...athletics!!! It is highly questionable why students have to pay fees to support something that has no value in their education and only serves to stroke ego of administrators. At my school, tuition/fees could be lowered 8% or more if they would cut athletic programs.

    Please see for a nice discussion and there are links to exact $ amounts of subsidies for many schools.

  15. Mark:

    False. The "workers" are far from "indentured servents". They receive 100% scholarships to a prestigious university, including housing. These scholarships are worth tens of thousands of dollars per year.

    Second, 95% of the brand value is provided by the university and the NCAA. The players themselves contribute almost nothing to this value. If you do not believe so, consider Coyote's alma matter in the NCAA tournament. Name one player from that team? Tell me how much you would pay to watch a "professional game" played by a team that consisted of the roster of Princeton? What would the advertising revenues be of a professional minor league basketball team that consisted of these types of players? ANd, from that, what would be the commensurate salary of such players?

    What really needs to happen is that the NBA and NFL needs to establish their own minor league systems like baseball has. Then,most players can forgo college, and play in these systems. The players that go to college will receive a scholarship they value. Universities will lose out on money, but it will also reduce expenses too. They will still have fans, but it will be in proportion to what college athletics should be about.

  16. NL:

    It's interesting that there's a maximum wage for college sports but a minimum wage for selling labor in any other context. If the minimum wage is meant to protect naive employees from rapacious employers, are NCAA regulations meant to protect naive universities from rapacious students?

    Seems like the paternalistic motivation would lead us to side with the students - who are not only young and presumably less sophisticated in negotiation, but are probably also disproportionately poor relative to their respective student bodies. But then, how many lobbyists do high school juniors and seniors have?

  17. chuck martel:

    Let's not forget the "draft system" that prohibits college athletes from signing with the professional team of their choice. Can't help but think that there's something really wrong with that.

  18. tribal elder:

    Let the NBA run its own farm system. NFL too. Let the seven footers go to the NBA at age 18-when they're old enough to sign a contract--or as young as 16 with parental consent.

    Unless college accrediting organization want the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL granting degrees, get colleges out of the sports business. Let the NCAA decree weighting scores by the four year graduation rate of the school's athletes in that sport.

    (I guess I got this way from night school!)

  19. mjude:

    However, a player can be a pro in say, baseball, and still be eligible to play football at old State U. He can even play baseball for ten years and when his career is over, go back to State U and play on scholarship on the football team.