This was originally published at the Mises Economics Blog on June 17, 2011.
Laboring Against the Idea of Labor
I’ve been contributing to the fine website Saturday Down South, which covers Southeastern Conference football. One of the editors there has a commentary today attacking the idea of paying college football players:
The fact that [paying players] is being brought up is preposterous and borderline offensive to the ordinary student and spectator.
I do know that [NCAA President Mark] Emmert is against paying college athletes, and I can only hope the other presidents and chancellors are with him, or at least will be on board with him after the meeting takes place.
Let’s talk a little bit about the college student-athlete and the benefits he/she already receives.
The collegiate student-athlete already gets paid to play in college. It’s called a scholarship. You are getting an education for free – books, tuition, etc.
Along with getting a full scholarship and an education for free, housing and meals are also included in that scholarship.
So, along with the pre-paid education, housing and meals, the student-athlete has access to any type of tutor he/she wants or needs to help take care of any academic issues. Sure, the common student has access to these tutors as well, but the student-athlete gets paid access to tutors.
The average college student leaves college with $25,000 of debt. With full scholarships intact for football players, student-athletes have a chance to leave college with ZERO debt.
The other side of that equation, however, is that the student-athlete’s ability to earn additional money beyond the scholarship is heavily restricted by NCAA rules. A musician who goes to Auburn on scholarship is allowed to earn outside income from her talent. Yet the NCAA bans athletes from earning any income related to athletic ability — even if it’s in a different sport then the one he or she plays in college. Furthermore, student-athletes are denied the sort of “internships” with potential future employers that are commonplace in every other academic discipline.
That said, I tend to agree that there’s no great injustice arising from the NCAA’s decision not to directly pay athletes beyond the value of their scholarships. But this has never been a debate about “paying” players. It’s a debate about whether to classify student-athletes as employees of their respective universities. That is what the NCAA wants to avoid at all costs. Former NCAA president Myles Brand addressed this subject in 2003:
The skeptic … will say, “Well of course you are opposed to pay for play because you want a free labor force.” Not true. I don’t want a labor force at all. That isn’t the role of student-athletes, and we must be vigilant in sustaining that principle. The direct and immediate result of pay for play is that we will create a labor force, and in doing so, we will have abandoned the collegiate model forever.
Creating a labor force, as Brand put it, would mean putting college athletes on the payroll of (mostly) government-run institutions. That would qualify them for the same types of benefits as university workers — and in many cases enable them to unionize. And if players are “employees,” then the NCAA’s thousands of rules would face the same sort of antitrust challenges as the NFL or any other sports league. Suddenly the government, at all levels, becomes a much more active part of college athletics. And that probably won’t improve things for athletes, schools, and especially fans.
The comic tragedy of all this is that unlike the “ordinary student” who might get offended if players suddenly got paid openly, it’s these same players who have demonstrated the necessary work ethic to achieve something after college that many of their debt-ridden classmates lack. Jeffrey Tucker, lamenting the lack of teenage work due to government restrictions, noted that first jobs are about more than money:
To have a “work ethic” means the willingness to experience discomfort on the way toward the completion of a job done with excellence. This doesn’t come naturally. The “natural” thing is to stop doing what you are doing when it begins to be something discomforting or when more is expected than you want to give. But this approach goes nowhere. In fact, if this is your approach, you trim more and more until the point that you become a sofa slug, which pretty much describes — a whole generation. [...]
You quickly learn in any job — and especially low-paying ones — that it hurts to work, physically and mentally. You must focus intensely for longer than you really want to. You do things you don’t like. You can find every excuse to drift off but you can’t because there are tasks that must be done. And if it is the right kind of job, if you don’t do the task, it doesn’t get done and then everyone up and down the line that depends on that task finds their tasks are harder and so everyone hates you.
This is a pretty darn good description of what college athletes go through. Yet for a host of legal, cultural, and financial reasons, the NCAA and its members must go out of their way to convince kids that what they’re doing isn’t really work. And that may tell you all you need to know about what is wrong with higher education today.