NCAA: The World's Last Bastion of British Aristocratic Privilege

It is incredible to me that we still fetishize amateurism, which in a large sense is just a holdover from British and other European aristocracies.  Historically, the mark of the true aristocrat was one who was completely unproductive.  I am not exaggerating -- doing any paid work of any sort made one a tradesman, and at best lowered ones status (in England) or essentially caused your aristocratic credentials to be revoked (France).

The whole notion of amateurism was originally tied up in this aristocratic nonsense.  It's fine to play cricket or serve in Parliament unpaid, but take money for doing so and you are out.  This had the benefit of essentially clearing the pitch in both politics and sports (and even fields like science, for a time) for the aristocracy, since no one else could afford to dedicate time to these pursuits and not get paid.  These attitudes carried over into things like the Olympics and even early American baseball, though both eventually gave up on the concept as outdated.

But the one last bastion of support of these old British aristocratic privileges is the NCAA, which still dedicates enormous resources, with an assist from the FBI, to track down anyone who gets a dollar when they are a college athlete.  Jason Gay has a great column on this today in the WSJ:

This is where we are now, like it or not. College basketball—and college football—are not the sepia-toned postcards of nostalgia from generations past. They’re a multibillion dollar market economy in which almost everyone benefits, and only one valve—to the players—is shut off, because of some creaky, indefensible adherence to amateurism. Of course some money finds its way to the players. That’s what the details of this case show. Not a scandal. A market.

Don’t look for the NCAA to acknowledge this, however. “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement that deserved confetti and a laughing donkey noise at the end of it.

I am not necessarily advocating that schools should or should have to pay student athletes, though that may (as Gay predicts) be coming some day.  But as a minimum the ban on athletes accepting any outside money for any reason is just insane.   As I wrote before, athletes are the only  students at a University that are not allowed to earn money in what they are good at.  Ever hear of an amateurism requirement for student poets?  For engineers?

When I was a senior at Princeton, Brooke Shields was a freshman.  At the time of her matriculation, she was already a highly paid professional model and actress (Blue Lagoon).  No one ever suggested that she not be allowed to participate in the amateur Princeton Triangle Club shows because she was already a professional.

When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I used to sit in my small dining hall (the now-defunct Madison Society) and listen to a guy named Stanley Jordan play guitar in a really odd way.  Jordan was already a professional musician (a few years after he graduated he would release an album that was #1 on the jazz charts for nearly a year).  Despite the fact that Jordan was a professional and already earned a lot of money from his music, no one ever suggested that he not be allowed to participate in a number of amateur Princeton music groups and shows.

My daughter is an art major at a school called Art Center in Pasadena (where she upsets my preconceived notions of art school by working way harder than I did in college).  She and many, if not most of her fellow students have sold their art for money already, but no one as ever suggested that they not be allowed to participate in school art shows and competitions.

I actually first wrote about this in Forbes way back in 2011.  Jason Gay makes the exact same points in his editorial today.  Good.  Finally someone who actually has an audience is stating the obvious:

In the shorter term, I like the proposals out there to eliminate the amateurism requirement—allow a college athlete in any sport (not just football or basketball) to accept sponsor dollars, outside jobs, agents, any side income they can get. The Olympics did this long ago, and somehow survived. I also think we’ll see, in basketball, the NBA stepping up and widening its developmental league—junking the dreadful one-and-one policy, lowering its age minimum, but simultaneously creating a more attractive alternative to the college game. If a player still opts to go to college, they’ll need to stay on at least a couple of seasons.

If you still think the scholarship is sufficient payment for an athlete in a high-revenue sport, ask yourself this question. There are all kinds of scholarships—academic, artistic, etc. Why are athletic scholarship recipients the only ones held to an amateurism standard? A sophomore on a creative writing scholarship gets a short story accepted to the New Yorker. Is he or she prohibited from collecting on the money? Heck no! As the Hamilton Place Strategies founder and former U.S. treasury secretary Tony Fratto succinctly put it on Twitter: “No one cares about a music scholarship student getting paid to play gigs.”



  1. mlhouse:

    College athletes on scholarship are paid. They receive a 100% academic scholarship with fully paid room and board. At just about any scholarship granting college this is worth at least $35,000 per year.

    The other part of the argument is that almost 100% of the value belongs to the university, not the player. Take, as an example, the basketball program at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. This team is part of the Big Ten, sells out their stadiums for most game, performs on national and local television and radio, and sponsorships and advertising are costy in the stadiums. The program generates millions of dollars of revenues a year.

    But take the entire team away from the University of Minnesota and put them on a semi-pro team that their compensation depends upon the revenues generated by the team. WHo in the hell is going to go watch them? What are their national and local television and radio broadcasting rights going to sell for? You know the answer: ZERO. The players brand value SEPARATE from the university brand is much, much, much less than the compensation they already receive in their scholarship.

  2. Jamie:

    Your hypothetical is wrong on multiple fronts:
    a) minor league baseball and minor league hockey. These sports are ones where players "compensation depends on the revenues generated by the team." Many, many people go and watch them.
    b) Ivy League schools. You could make the exact same argument about value belonging to the university, not the player. But you don't see 10s of thousands of people go to see these games. One factor is that the players are generally not future professional athletes.
    c) Power 5 conferences with competitors drawn from the general student body would have drastic decreases in attendance. By that I mean completely blind admission policies and then the schools host open tryouts on the first day of school. I would expect attendance and interest in watching to plummet.
    d) Your analysis excuses away bribes as if they don't exist. But they clearly do, which suggests that the market value of a player exceeds their 100% academic scholarship in anthropology or exercise science or parks and recreation management (with apologies to our blog host).

  3. Sam P:

    While the NCAA is by far the largest collegiate athletics organizing body, 5 times larger than second place NAIA, I wonder how the policies of the NAIA differ.

    So how does the FBI get involved in what is essentially contract disputes? Interstate wire fraud?

  4. mlhouse:

    1. Minor league baseball salaries are a pittance. The lowest level minor league players make about $1,200 per month. AAA players earn an average of $2,150/month. Please note, those salaries are paid ONLY for the 5-6 month season.

    2. And those Ivy League schools really do not have huge sports budgets.

    3. Who cares about attendance? Or revenues? ALL, repeat ALL of the revenues generated from athletics and then some go back into athletics. The highest paid public employee in all 50 states are the football/basketball coaches at the local universities. Huge money is spent on athletic infrastructure, including HUNDREDS of millions of dollars into stadiums. Most athletic programs operate in the RED and need general fund money to pay for the balance.

    4. Bribes have nothing to do with "market value". Most of the money is paid for by boosters looking for INSIDE ACCESS to the programs.

    5. The fact that the compensation that are offered for NCAA athletes, scholarships, have little value to them really should make us reflect on the entire concept of student-athletes and the corruption of the NCAA.

  5. marque2:

    The Ivy league chose many years ago, at least for football, not to be a top tier league, and therefore doesn't can't command much for their athletes. It was a decision by the Ivy schools not to participate at the top level, they are Division 1-AA. And yes it seems they de-emphasize the sports even when they compete at the top level.

    The real athletes are in Division 1A schools and in those Division 1A schools, only the top conferences, and not even Division 1AA- which is already a backwater. Big 10, Pac 10, SEC ... Those are the schools that recruit the top level athletes that are highly valued. And those athletes tend to draw customers to the program/TV rights - whatever.

    I see your point, where the school is part of the draw. In Div 1 football (now called FBS) often fans will fill the stadium out of school loyalty as much as they go to see the players, so when a school like Ohio State, or USC have a series of off years, they can still fill the stadium and garner national television appearances. But then part of that has to do with being able to fairly consistently get the talent on the field. 20 years of poor performance, and even the best football school will have fans lose interest. And those athlete's talents are worth something, possibly more than just a scholarship. Depends on the athlete. You have a potential Heisman winner on your hands, and that player is worth more to the university, than the other players who receive a scholarship.

    The only way to really determine if the value is greater than a mere scholarship though, is to open up the process to the free market and have teams bid on the players. Some probably still will just get tuition, room and board, others who show great potential might be worth more. You don't know until you get the free market working.

    Part of the problem opening up the market, is that universities have a lock on the students. They can only play, I believe 5 academic years, and they get penalized a season if they move schools. This move penalty is definitely an anti-competitive aspect of the game which should be removed, regardless of whether they decide to pay athletes or not.

  6. marque2:

    Though I generally agree that there should be a free market, and reduction of rules - such as the transfer penalty. I can see one difference between Athletics and other college endeavors. That is that the Athletics department isn't really a college in the school, it is a separate program. I don't think the students even get much school credit for playing (3 units for a season of football) I could be wrong here, but it seems that the college athletes all have to get degrees from other "real" colleges. I still have to think how this relates.

    One thing I do believe though, is if the college gives you a scholarship on condition that you do not work elsewhere, e.g. no computer science internship, or paid app development, then they can throw you out and/or limit your activities in university sponsored amateur fields if you do not comply. If a person chooses not to comply they can always leave and go to another university. Of course "in residency" unit requirements, hinder that a bit as well. This may be the reasoning behind the college athlete scholarship.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    "These attitudes carried over into things like the Olympics and even
    early American baseball, though both eventually gave up on the concept
    as outdated."

    Sorry, but the idea of amateurism in the modern Olympics has been a fraud on the public from the very beginning.

    Even at the very first Olympics, every country but the US sent mostly police, military or other government employees who were allowed to train full time for over a year in advance while still drawing their government salaries. Even later on when younger athletes were being recruited, most countries gave them some kind of government job that they were then excused from so they could train full time.

    The US is the only country that has ever sent athletes to the Olympics that had to do most of their training part time on their own dime.

  8. The_Big_W:

    FBI Agent: “So what should we do today, check out that kid in Florida that everyone Ian telling us is making violent threats, or should we bust a college athletes for getting his dinner paid for by a recruiter.”

  9. Andrew Hunter:

    " No one ever suggested that she not be allowed to participate in the amateur Princeton Triangle Club shows because she was already a professional."

    Somewhat offtopic, but I'm actually not sure about that. Union rules are...complicated, but there's a good chance she actually would be banned from that? (I do semi-professional paid-a-pittance theater, but we all have friends who are actual Equity-card professionals; they *can't* do our shows.)

  10. mlhouse:

    The real problem is that the two main professional sports, football and basketball, should set up their own minor league system. Instead of having academically unqualified students fraudulantly admitted into college campuses, they should go play in minor league professional teams, affiliated or unaffiliated with the professional team.

    In many ways, this would be to the advantage of the professional leagues. A huge issue with using NCAA football as your early development is that college rules and offensive/defensive schemes are not in line with the NFL, and although it isn't as significant, the way college coaches control the basketball game makes it significantly different than the NBA which is more free flowing.

    What is preventing this is the absolute corruption of the NCAA. The people who it enriches simply are not going to give up the billions of dollars that flows through, often not that accountable flow either. And, the professional sports believes that the value of getting their new players they draft into their leagues exposure outweighs any detriment that the style of play in the NCAA leagues may have.

    The NCAA sports would decline in popularity and the money would evaporate, but who cares. College sports would still be fun. My son played D3 football. People went to those games. Having the non-scholar athletes bypass these schools would give more deserving student athletes opportunities.

  11. marque2:

    I agree with you.

  12. J K Brown:

    Well, the entire basis of the Liberal Arts is that is a hobby. It has been an anomaly of the recent century and a half that one could earn money from a Liberal Art.

    In the precapitalistic ages writing was an unremunerative art. Blacksmiths and shoemakers could make a living, but authors could not. Writing was a liberal art, a hobby, but not a profession. It was a noble pursuit of wealthy people, of kings, grandees and statesmen, of patricians and other gentlemen of independent means. It was practiced in spare tim e by bishops and monks, university teachers and soldiers. The penniless man whom an irresistible impulse prompted to write had first to secure some source of revenue other than authorship.

    Mises, Ludwig von (1956). The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality

    And we should note that Robert Hooke, one of the brilliant minds of the 17th century was unable to be invited to join the Royal Society because he had to work for a living. Strictly forbidden not to be living off the work of others on your lands to be a fellow of the Royal Society. A compromise was found by the Curator position.

  13. Dave Boz:

    The Ivy League model would seem to eliminate the corruption problem, and put less emphasis on extracurricular activities. This would be healthy for the university and its students, since athletics generally don't contribute anything to the academic mission of the school. This would result in the immediate obsolescence of many stadiums and arenas, but so what? Those are sunk costs anyway.

    I disagree that student-athletes are "paid" through the value of their scholarship. I'd bet that the majority of them receive almost no useful education. They are on campus to play their sport; they know it, the school knows it, and the rest of the student body knows it. What could possibly justify recruiting young men with little interest in academics to "attend" a university for a year or two for no purpose other than to prepare for a career playing sports? There should be minor leagues for this, as there are in baseball. Without the sports programs of the major universities, that is what would happen.

    I understand that mine is a minority view. Some years ago, the president of the University of Iowa (my alma mater) floated suggestions to slightly de-emphasize sports. The boosters and football fanatics slapped him down and his career at Iowa was finished. It showed who runs the university and what the priorities are. That was when I stopped contributing, but I'm not wealthy so the university didn't really care.

  14. Roy Greenwell:

    I tend to agree with our blog host, but I really don't have a dog in this fight with but one exception.

    First, I do not begrudge anyone their own preferences for their personal entertainment. And let's be frank, that is what *all* spectator sports are - both college and professional. But it's not mine. Indeed, I find almost all of them boring. If the NCAA, the NBA, or the NFL went away tomorrow, it would be a mere footnote to the history of my life.

    However, what I am dead set against is the use of public funds for any of it. I also recognize that I am in a distinct minority. As mlhouse said, in a majority of the states (...not all 50) the highest paid public employee is either a football or basketball coach. That, as far as I am concerned, is a disgrace.

    And then there are those major-league owners who try and hold cities hostage for a new stadium or some-such. The first mayoral candidate that says to them: "Don't let the door hit you in the a&&." gets my vote regardless of party.

  15. morganovich:

    i think this is a bit different in practice. the "amateurism" thing is a flimsy facade to hide what is really going on: monopsony.

    schools DO pay players. they give them tuition, room, board, books, etc. that can be $50-60k a year in value. more if you start adding in tutors etc.

    they just want to be the ONLY ones who can pay players and avoid an actual market developing.

  16. marque2:

    Three arguments here:
    1. The athletic programs tend to be self sufficient - or nearly so. College of engineering is a total drain from what the don't recover from the subsidized tuition.
    2. While I think all schools should be private - if we are government subsidizing students who want to learn and supposedly excel at sociology, psychology, and "disenfranchised group" studies, why shouldn't we subsidize the education of students who want to learn to excel at athletics?
    3. ADD, I forgot my third argument.

  17. Matthew Slyfield:

    2. This is not true. Only football programs and basketball programs are self sufficient. None of the other athletic programs, even come close to it.

  18. marque2:

    It is absolutely true. The Football and basketball programs subsidize the other athletic programs.

    You can't really separate out two and say phooey to the rest of the athletic program. It is one unit. And as a unit it generates at least some, or most, of its own funds beyond tuition and state subsidies, unlike every other program in college.

  19. marque2:

    Also my argument is that in public schools, if all all the other
    programs get subsidized, why should students who want to learn to excel
    in their physical capacity, be punished. Goodness there are tons of
    programs that are totally worthless in school.

    Finally, I think you meant 1: is not true.

  20. Matthew Slyfield:

    "The Football and basketball programs subsidize the other athletic programs"

    While that might be true for some of the top athletic schools, I doubt most schools generate enough money from the football and basketball programs to make the entire athletic department self sufficient.

  21. slocum:

    " I'd bet that the majority of them receive almost no useful education. They are on campus to play their sport; they know it, the school knows it, and the rest of the student body knows it. "

    That may be true of top men's football and basketball players in Div I programs, but it's not close to true for the majority of student-athletes -- most of whom compete in sports where there simply are no pro leagues. And even in high-profile football programs, there are still a lot of kids who spend most of their four years as backups and are definitely there for the education (I know a couple of guys like that who went on to become MDs)

  22. Dave Boz:

    I think we agree. My generalization refers to the major sports at major schools, where the issue of big money sloshing around produces the corruption that our host discusses. If football and basketball were played on the same level as lacrosse or tennis or pretty much all collegiate women's sports, the corruption problem would be reduced to an insignificant level.

  23. marque2:

    Is any other college in the university self sufficient? Or are the all drains - but the athletic department less so because they generate some of their own funds?

    You are losing this argument with your illogic.

  24. marco73:

    The NCAA is just guarding its golden eggs.
    Just google "Jeremy Bloom".
    Mr. Bloom was a professional snow skier, who wanted to play college football. Oh dear, oh dear, since he had taken money for athletics, he was banned from playing college football.
    If he had earned money in any other endeavor, he could have suited up and gone on the field.
    Mr. Bloom and the NCAA ran around in court for several years, until a judge finally decided that the NCAA amateur rules were carved in stone.
    So college football fans were no allowed to see Mr. Bloom appear as an amateur. Bloom was a good enough athlete that he eventually went on the play NFL football.

  25. slocum:

    Fair enough. With respect to another point "There should be minor leagues for this, as there are in baseball."

    Well, basketball has the D-League. The players there are quite poorly paid (average salary of $25,000). Most NCAA basketball players would not be financially better off with minor leagues. And average minor league baseball salaries are even lower. Free tuition, room and board is a higher rate of pay, with much better living and working conditions, than minor league pro sports. There are good reasons why more aspiring baseball and hockey players are choosing university scholarships over going directly into the minor leagues after high school -- it's a better deal.

    Because of the alumni affiliations, universities are able to make stars out of young players most of whom will turn out not to be good enough for the pros and who, if not for the university, would have been toiling away in obscurity and for minimal pay in minor leagues.

  26. Peabody:

    I believe ice hockey is at a few schools. I couldn't find any information quickly, but I believe some cover operating expenses (so not including building a new rink for example).

  27. Matthew Slyfield:

    Is any other department further from a university's core mission?

    You are mistaken if you think I am arguing that the athletic department of a university should be self sufficient. Particularly at a public university which is by definition tax subsidized.

    You have proffered exactly zero evidence to support your claim that university athletic departments are self sufficient.

  28. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Also my argument is that in public schools, if all all the other
    programs get subsidized, why should students who want to learn to excel
    in their physical capacity, be punished."

    I don't disagree with that. However, the "punishment" extends well beyond lower subsidies to the athletic department.

    For example, they are required to pursue academic majors and there are minimum grade requirements or they can lose their athletic eligibility.

    If a university athletic department wants to be treated like any of the colleges, it should be offering majors and degrees in it's own right.

  29. marque2:

    Athletics is not off the university core mission of training people to be better in the field you choose. Why do you hate people who want to learn to excel athletically? Why do you hate schools for offering programs to do this?

    You must be one of those geeks who had an irrational hate of athletes. Wanting to learn to better athletically is just as honorable as wanting to learn engineering.

    You have personally preferred nothing as well, but complain at me for your flawed agument. Time to give it a rest.

  30. mlhouse:

    Most of the dorm construction is for "Athletic Villages", special dorms for the athletes. I dispute your claims that there are new lecture halls and construction from fund generated by the athletic programs UNLESS it is athletic related.

    Also, the claims of "ever decreasing" state money is a farce. Taxpayer financing continues to go up. Tuition continuous to go up. While the profit generating sports sometimes are in the black and help fund the non-profit athletics, most athletic programs are not self sufficient.

  31. Matthew Slyfield:

    " university core mission of training people to be better in the field you choose"

    Except that has little relationship to what any real university will tell you is their core mission. Why do you think universities require athletes to at least nominally pursue academic degrees?

    If you are arguing for changing that, I'll agree with you.

    "Why do you hate people who want to learn to excel athletically?"

    I don't. However, a university is a ridiculously overpriced venue for pursuing that goal. Universities as they exist today are not proper venues for pursuing general athletic excellence.

    "but complain at me for your flawed agument."

    What you keep calling my flawed argument is an argument I HAVE NOT MADE.

  32. Mike McDonald:

    Your comment brought to mind an old movie, "Chariots of Fire". Good movie!

  33. Peabody:

    You need to enter the mind warp of politics. If the annual rate of increase is going down, then that is a decrease. And if that isn't going down, just take the second or third derivative or whatever is necessary to show a decrease. Talking points trump absolutely numbers.

  34. c_andrew:

    From what I understand, if you factor the ongoing costs of capital for their infrastructure such as stadiums and workout facilities, only about 20 programs in the largest television markets make the cut to self-sufficiency. All the rest are subsidized by whoever bears the cost of building and maintaining their physical plant.

  35. jameske3001 .:

    To say people fetishize amateurism seems to me to be an exaggeration. And to say that the mark of a true aristocrat was to be completely unproductive is also an exaggeration. If I were to call Warren a total libtard that would be an exaggeration. He is only a partial one. And like amateurism and the British aristocracy, Warren also has his (redeeming) qualities.