WASHINGTON, April 7, 2015 — So, the Duke University men won the NCAA basketball title last night. Let us take a moment to congratulate them on their victory. The young men on the team worked hard for the title, and they deserve some time to bask in the glory.
Minute over. Now let’s discuss the foul stench in the room: the NCAA.
The NCAA is a cartel. Like other cartels—OPEC, De Beers—its function is to make money for its members and owners. These include coaches, broadcasters and the NCAA organization itself. They all make vast sums of money from collegiate sports.
One part of the cartel loses, but because it isn’t losing money for the people running the show, it really doesn’t care. The member colleges and universities are losers, but their administrators don’t mind. For most colleges, intercollegiate athletics lose money. They’re suckered into an athletics arms race in the belief that the visibility and alumni donations will make up the losses; they don’t. They offer scholarships, build stadiums, build special gyms and dorms and training facilities for athletes, and someone else pays the bills.
The players are also losers. They get some scholarships and campus adulation, but other than that, they don’t even get insurance out of it. If they’re damaged, game over, scholarship over, career over. Some of the cash pile would assuage their pain.
The concept of the “student athlete” was created as a way to keep collegiate athletes from any claim on the pile of money that enriches the NCAA, the nexus of the cartel. It operates not out of concern for players and not in their best interests, but to use them for as long as they can be used. The NCAA should be utterly destroyed, its buildings burned down and the ground salted, its directors sent to Qatar as slave labor to build the stadiums for another loathsome organization, FIFA, whose leaders should be flayed, disemboweled, burned, and their ashes buried at a toxic waste site.
But I digress.
Only a fraction of a percent of college athletes will ever make a career in the pros. Those in club sports—gymnastics, wrestling, crew, lacrosse, soccer—generally do very well after graduation, being in fact students first and not relying on athletic scholarships to get through college. They aren’t tied to the team, their lives are not put in the hands of coaches whose interests often aren’t theirs.
Scholarship athletes are in a different situation. Due to public pressure, the NCAA requires that member schools pay close attention to graduation rates of those athletes. So, for instance, the University of North Carolina, a very good academic school, created dummy—as in fake, not as in for dummies—courses that were graded by a secretary who assigned grades depending on the needs of the student: not A’s for everyone, but a judicious mixture of A’s and B’s to avoid drawing attention to fake courses. They got away with it for 18 years, keeping over 1600 athletes eligible to play with inflated grades.
No one doubts that similar activities go on at other schools. In 2014, Notre Dame suspended five scholarship athletes for academic misconduct, and the Syracuse football and men’s basketball programs faced scrutiny last year for allegations involving academic misconduct as well.
We are, of course, shocked when such abuses are brought to light. We should be more shocked that they aren’t brought to light much more often. The NCAA has created the incentives to engage in UNC type fraud, and where the expected rewards for fraud and abuse are high, there will be fraud and abuse.
NCAA athletes have excellent graduation rates; 84 percent of athletes who entered school in the 2007-08 school year graduated within six years, a record. But very rare is the John Urschel, a pro-football player mathematician. Much more common is the athlete who gets a degree in general studies, or some other major with minimal requirements and limited possibilities. Most athletes just don’t have the ability to get an engineering degree—a full-time endeavor—and play football or basketball full time during the season.
A general studies degree and a nice smile will get you a job serving coffee at Starbucks.
The NCAA exploits student labor. “Exploit” is not a word that market economists use lightly in this context, but it applies nicely to the NCAA in this case.
If football and basketball want farm teams, they should set up their own minor leagues, as baseball does, and hire people to play in them. Athletic scholarships should be banned in favor of hardship and academic scholarships.
A kid who can only go to college on an athletic scholarship should really think twice about going to college at all. If he or she can’t afford to go but has the grades and aptitude, that’s what hardship scholarships are for. Grades and aptitude are also what academic scholarships are for.
What, really, are athletic scholarships for? Who are we kidding with the mantra, “they help poor kids go to college”? Really? Do they help poor klutzy kids, poor disabled kids, poor kids who are 5’2″? What’s so special about athletic ability that it demands special scholarships for athletes, scholarships that non-athletes apparently don’t need?
If we’re not going to destroy the NCAA, the money should be shared with the athletes – they should be paid. But better yet would be to destroy the NCAA, eliminate athletic scholarships, and let would be athletes play for minor leagues or enjoy club sports while being real students. “Student athlete” is a term that should be eliminated along with the NCAA.