George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated has launched an ambitious model to investigate the feasibility of paying college athletes. His results so far are posted on the SI site, prefaced admirably as follows: “The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited.”
I applaud Dohrmann for this effort. It seems well motivated, and it shows that knowledgable people are thinking seriously at last about the fundamental structure of college sports.
Still, readers should pay attention to the basic design of Dohrmann’s model. Its starting point is the current athletic budget at leading universities, and its question is how much if anything those athletic departments can afford to pay their players. Not surprisingly, he concludes that “the vast majority of athletic departments do not generate enough profit to pay athletes.” Any revenue for such pay has been allocated elsewhere. Dohrmann’s model tracks the difficulty of re-allocation on a presumption that money to pay football and basketball players must come from the elimination of other teams.
This framework seems skewed to me. It purports to be an open-minded exploration while tacitly accepting too much of the status quo. “SI [Sports Illustrated] is not advocating paying college players,” Dohrmann states at the outset. “That’s a decision best left to college administrators.” Embedded there is a presumption that those administrators unilaterally can and should decide whether or not to pay their key talent. Why should they? What boss would give up discounted labor, especially when the resultant savings have been distributed among the bosses and coaches themselves?
I suggest a more basic starting point. Who should be involved in decisions about pay for college players? Does exclusion from the process exploit them inherently? If athletes are entitled to bargain for their own livelihood, like other citizens, then colleges must be free to pay them or not. A market would evolve. Salaries for coaches doubtless would decline. The overall college community, including the players, would make decisions about whether and how big-time sports are compatible with education. Players would cope straightforwardly with separate standards in two careers, academics and (often) commercialized sports.
Currently the system is rigged by a shaky cartel agreement through the NCAA. My survey of NCAA history, which appeared in The Atlantic, is now expanded and current for $3.99 in a Byliner.com ebook, “The Cartel,”. By confronting the hoax of amateurism, Sports Illustrated could re-build George Dohrmann’s worthy model on a sounder basis.