Saturday, May 3, 2014

Fixing the NCAA

How can college sports be fair to players?

March madness is now well past, but the bittersweet taste lingers, of seeing so many starry-eyed young strivers bossed around by extremely well-paid coaches and staffs, funded by enormous television contracts, paid for by our eyeballs and cable bills. It is really a plantation system.

There are proposals to pay college students, but I would like to go in a different direction. It is appropriate to pay student athletes in the coin of education, if they are really getting an education. So the first and most obvious reform has to be to award full, four-year, no-strings scholarships. Right now, scholarships are renewable, per year, or even less. This makes getting one the same as working for one boss- the coach, as the student can be fired at will for non-performance, sent packing from the school as well as the team. Are academic scholarships awarded on such a cold-blooded, mercenary basis, replicating the worst aspects of our at-will employment system? No, and nor should athletic scholarships. If the institution values the student, they should pay the full freight and allow that student the basic personal and academic freedom to do what they want with all the opportunities of higher education.

But I would add just one more thing, which is that salaries (which is to say, total pay) at all non-profit institutions (such as colleges, whether public or private), should be capped at something like ten times the minimum wage. It is truly revolting to see star college coaches feted as the second coming, building empires that overshadow the rest of their institutions, and being paid in grandiose terms, all on the backs of young athletes they so shamelessly exploit. Any non-profit is supposed to have a public purpose and an ethic of service, which is antithetical to the blowout contracts and naked greed so much on display. Will all the good coaches go to the NBA? Good riddance! May they join the Clippers.

This kind of rule would have beneficial effects in many areas. In our local area, we were once saddled with a predatory hospital chain that extracted money, gave mediocre service, and paid its executives like princes, and was, you guessed it, a non-profit. CEO-scale pay is a sign of a profit mind-set and purpose, not a non-profit mind-set. Such a rule might also light a fire under the effort to increase the minimum wage, which has few powerful natural advocates otherwise.

Indeed it is high time for a new model of work and pay, where the primary motivation of work is the work itself. Running a company, school, or non-profit organization has far more meaningful rewards than the money involved, so the idea that pay should be set exclusively by some market mechanism using the fig leaf of marginal productivity to cover essentially random factors of luck, access, career choice, negotiating prowess, and inborn talent, is both counter-productive, and morally repugnant. Sure, reward people for greater effort and effectiveness, but within a reasonable band that doesn't bankrupt our communal institutions and more importantly, doesn't turn everyone involved into avatars of greed. Human worth is a far more complicated proposition.

Lastly, what to do about the media ecosystem, which vacuums up money whether the students and coaches get paid alot or not? The NCAA, under this system, would naturally be a non-profit subject to the same salary caps as its member schools. So the money would be negotiated as usual, but would all go to the general accounts of the schools participating. Not to their athletic departments, not to their coaches. If they want to run big programs and enjoy sports, let them do so in light of their wider institutional responsibilities. The whole college sports machine needs to be toned down a little, and the focus taken from the rabid onlookers and spectacle (i.e. madness, to put it in technical terms) to the young people who should, after all, be getting an education, first and foremost.

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