Monday, July 12, 2021

Student Athletes, Freedom, and Inequality

One of the big issues in college sports right now is amateurism. It has long been the rule that student athletes cannot be compensated for playing, beyond free tuition and expenses. This goes back to the old, aristocratic spirit that also animated the modern Olympics; the young men rowing for Oxford and Cambridge were something completely different from grubby boxers and what-all who competed for cash. 

What happens to college sports now that the barrier is falling, I have no idea. Most likely just an intensification of the trend we have already seen over the past 25 years, with a few elite schools vacuuming up all the top talent, many of whom will stay in college only for a year before turning pro.

And this is very popular among students:

Eighty-one percent of students in the College Pulse survey said the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, and their reasoning often boiled down to money.

“They [the NCAA] make billions of dollars each year while athletes, who tend to be browner and poorer than the student body, make either nothing at all or a few thousand dollars in scholarship incentives,” wrote a student at Grinnell College. “Many do not graduate because of the time commitments from their sports, and the physical toll on their bodies is immense with no further support if they do get injured. I would say all of that is unethical in the extreme.”

Whether the responses were broken down by gender, race or political leaning, students overwhelmingly sided against the NCAA. For example, Black or African American (86 percent), Hispanic or Latino (86 percent) and multiracial students (92 percent) were especially likely to think that the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, while 80 percent of white students also agreed.

“Student athletes have so many restrictions placed on them, and schools/NCAA make [an] insane amount of money off of them, without those students seeing that money,” wrote a University of Louisville student. “And let’s be real, student athletes are set up to fail after college most of the time.”

This sort of argument is old and noble; after all the main argument Lincoln advanced against slavery was that black people had the same right as whites to profit from their own labor. I have recently read two memoirs written by slaves who praised their former enslavers for allowing them to keep all the money they earned while working off the plantation; being a slave in a legal sense seemed to bother them less than having their enslavers take half the money they earned. The right of every working person to profit from that labor strikes all of us as fundamental and just.

So it makes sense that many Americans see the unpaid labor of student-athletes as wrong, especially when others profit from it.

But: who will really benefit from this change? Surely not the average athlete. I wonder if the average athlete might even lose a little, since right now universities recruit top talent partly by creating luxurious facilities and so on that all athletes can use. Once they can recruit by offering cash or sponsorships, will they care as much about spiffy weight rooms and athletic dorms?

The beneficiaries will be the top athletic stars, the people who already view college as a brief stop on the way to a professional career. Some of them will no doubt land multi-million dollar deals. Great for them.

But isn't this a perfect example of the mindset that has brought us such extreme inequality? Millions for the stars, nothing for the rest of us? We agree on the principle that people should profit from their own labor, especially those (like top athletes) who work extremely hard. But this Civil Rights principle, noble in the abstract, will in this case just enrich people who would in a few years (barring catastrophic injury) be rich anyway.

Freedom, in and of itself, will not lead to a world I would think of as just.

I find that many Americans who think of themselves as leftist react very strongly against all limitations on freedom. Student athletes should be free to profit from their labor. Marijuana smokers should be free to do their thing, and growers to profit from it. Women should have the same salaries as men in corporate jobs that take up all our time and flog our souls. Working people should be free to drink or gamble away their paychecks even if their kids go hungry.

So long as that is our attitude, we will never create a more equal world.


Shadow said...

As I understand it, the courts, including the Supreme Court, ruled the NCAA unreasonably restrains trade by limiting or denying education-related benefits. The key point being the NCAA is a national organization whose rules are enforced nation wide. That restricts trade. No such restrictions were placed on universities and conferences. Each university and conference can determine what compensation, if any, athletes get. I guess the reasoning is that since their rules only apply to their university or conference, and since each university and conference can have different rules, trade is not restricted.

Also, the ruling does not cover salaries or hourly wages.

Here it is the essence of the ruling in one sentence: The courts determined that NCAA rules restricting compensation "unrelated to education" (i.e., pay-for-play payments akin to salaries) were reasonable means to preserve the distinction between college sports and professional sports, but the NCAA's rules prohibiting education-related benefits were not.

To me this is a mess and am wondering how anti-trust laws ever led to this.

Shadow said...

Oops. Should have put quotes around that last sentence.

David said...

I don't know and haven't heard of a single person who thinks of themselves as leftist who thinks that a few stars should be able to profit hugely, while the rest of humanity gets a pittance. That's not the logic behind legalization of marijuana, which seems to me to be more about the rights of consumers (after all, marijuana growers and other drug suppliers have done rather well out of the war on drugs; and the point of legalization for most voters is not, I don't think, to make drugs part of say, the Beatrice business model, or Philip Morris').

G. Verloren said...

The issue with amateurism is that it was being cynically exploited by the major sports leagues as a way to make obscene amounts of money without having to compensate the athletes.

I personally feel that all sports ought to be amateur sports, and I think the whole "professional sports industry" is thoroughly corrupt and needs maassive reforms at a minimum. But I could see the argument for having leaving professional sports as it is, and making student athletics the realm of pure amateurism - but that would require taking the money out of college sports, which the corporations wouldn't like.

Honestly, though, I think that would be the best option that doesn't just tear down modern professional sports entirely - have student athletes be amateurs, and have all the money taken out of amateur sports, as it always ought to have been. The idea that corporate interests are raking in millions while insisting on not paying the players responsible for those millions being made is monstrous and disgusting. It should be illegal to profit off amateur sports - if you want to make millions off college athletes, you should have to elevate them to professionals.

John said...

@David- Sure, most leftists don't support a world in which rich stars get all the money. But think like a Leninist: what is the objective outcome of allowing Nike to sponsor top college athletes? Massive inequality. So, in Leninist terms, they are supporting inequality.

If you don't like marijuana legalization as a second example, how about allowing brilliant tech bros to found companies in their garages? Allowing inventors to profit from their ideas? Allowing brilliant artists to copyright their work? It all seems just and right. But what if the outcome is ever increasing inequality?

Remember that I think, based on lots of economics I have read recently, that in a stable, law-bound society with a vibrant economy, inequality is bound to increase unless we do something drastic about it. What I see on the left, is too much devotion to freedom to do anything about that. This probably includes me.

G. Verloren said...


The problem is, in our society "Freedom" is far too often used as a stand-in for "freedom from consequences".

We don't care about increasing actual freedoms for the majority of Americans - we much prefer to fixate on granting and preserving elite privileges for the wealthy.

We think that a professional sports star should be "free" to make more money playing a single game than many people will earn in their entire lives. But then we turn around and argue against the freedom of the homeless to receive tax-payer funded monetary assistance, or their freedom to sleep on park benches without being arrested, or even just their freedom to be treated like human being despite their destitution and circumstances.

At every turn, we as a society work to limit the freedoms of the poor, and of the vulnerable, and of minorities, and so on... but then we're all too eager to defend the "freedoms" of the obscenely rich, who have more money than any reasonable person could ever need, but who want the right and the privilege to extract ever more and collect it into a glittering golden hoard upon which they will luxuriate like dragons. We refuse to raise the minimum wage and insist on permitting layoffs for people who don't deserve to lose their jobs, but then turn around and allow CEOs to give themselves utterly obscene bonuses even as they bankrupt the companies they run. We give tax cuts to the wealthy, then hike taxes on everyone else.

We obsess over "freedom", but what we really celebrate is the excesses of the kleptocratic oligarchy. The rich who want for nothing deserve the "freedom" to claim ever more for themselves, while the poor who want for everything have the "freedom" to suffer in deprivation. The banks have the "freedom" to get bailed out, while the working people have the freedom to be fired, evicted, foreclosed on, etc. When was the last time a SWAT team bust into a rich person's home in the middle of the night, brutalized them, traumatized their children, and "destroyed" their household pets with automatic rifle fire?

Most Americans aren't devoted to freedom - they're devoted to greed, and they have been for a long time. And you're right - we need to do something drastic about it. But we won't, because we're too cowardly to disrupt the status quo, and the rich are too good now at manipulating us into complacency and inaction. We spend all our time and energy just trying to tread water, by design - the rich know how to create waves intentionally just to sap our strength, keep us busy and distracted and exhausted and never ready to actually challenge their rigged system in any meaningful way.

The house has the freedom to win - everyone else has the freedom to lose.

David said...


I'd start by saying I don't think either left or right is devoted to abstract principles like freedom. Both sides would say they are devoted to freedom, but both define freedom in rather different ways and cherish freedom for rather different groups of people. And both sides are content, even eager, to do rather drastic things to the people they don't think deserve so much freedom.

The left likes tech bros when they're in garages defying The Man, but once they become Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, no longer. I'm sure many on the left would be delighted to break up both Amazon and Facebook.

Further, I would add that the contemporary left has very little in common with Leninism, which was a tough-guy philosophy (Orlando Figes has a good section on Lenin and his followers' tough-guyism) devoted to the ruthless gaining and exercise of power in order to carry out a doctrinaire Marxism. Contemporary leftism isn't much like that. Doctrinaire Marxism is rare. You may get a few tough-person sub-sub-groups like antifa, and a few who think they're serious about power, but really, no.