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The Incoherent Case For Paying Student-Athletes

Matthew Yglesias continues his jihad against college sports, which is always premised on the idea that there are no important differences between college athletics and for-profit economic cartels:

Allison Schrager stands up for mandatory amateurism for guys who are skilled at football and basketball:
Second, playing on a college team instead of a professional minor league one is often better for the athletes. Most players, even in elite programmes, do not get a professional contract, so their alternatives would be a few years as a poorly paid minor-league athlete or a stint on a college team that includes access to a college educationThe education alternative has the potential to diversify an athlete’s human capital, by developing skills other than those specifically related to basketball or American football. These skills are more valuable than wages they’d be paid as minor league athletes.
Maybe . . . but . . . do we apply this logic to any other field of endeavor? Maybe we should let movie and television studious form a cartel that refuses to pay actors in any form other than than University of California scholarships. After all, most aspiring actors won’t make it and the education they receive may prove to be more valuable than their wages. But nobody proposes that, because it would be insane. I think it just so happens to be the case that highly skilled 18 year-old football and basketball players tend to be politically disempowered individuals from politically disempowered families.

First of all, there's no "mandatory amateurism." 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. You have the NBA developmental league, but that league is subsidized by the pros. This suggests Yglesias's exploitation model is pretty seriously flawed. During the beginning of the NCAA tournament, he wrote, "Professional basketball players are way better at basketball. Just saying."

He's right. And yet college basketball is highly popular. Why is that? Perhaps it's because people like watching games between college students, even if they understand that some of those students are just looking for  a pathway to professional basketball. They do not like watching an NBA training league. Now, everybody understands that the reality often falls short of the ideal. I'm very much in favor of reforms like ending freshman eligibility and so on. Yglesias seems far more interested in destroying college athletics than in thinking about what to change it into, or whether that thing could even survive.

A second, and more persistent, flaw in Yglesias's critique is the problem of profit. He's been making this argument for years, and he never deals with the absence of profit. A movie studio forming a cartel to underpay its workforce and thus enjoy greater profits is different than a university that does not have any profit. Yglesias might have some explanation for why this difference doesn't matter, but to ignore it altogether is not really a persuasive approach.

And the issue of profit is really key here. Sometimes Yglesias says the problem with college athletics is that they're a money making venture disguised as part of a college. And sometimes he says the problem with college athletics is that it's a money-losing venture subsidized by non-athlete students. The one commonality between his views is his passionate hatred for college athletics.

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

I'm not sure what about this situation suggests that the men's basketball players deserve to be paid by UConn but the women's cross country runners don't. So who would get paid here? All college athletes?