Jay Bilas is on Mike and Mike right now debating Golic about whether college players should be able to receive compensation for outside money-making activities – like autograph signing. Golic, a former college athlete of course, is adamantly opposed and fears that there will be rampant booster abuse, a system in which players go to the highest bidder and a lack of competitive balance. Bilas disagrees with all of this. He insists that “reasonable regulation” can be devised to ensure a new system isn’t subject to whatever abuses critics worry over. In particular, Bilas says we can make sure that players and, say, playing card companies, can sign legitimate contracts and that the “market,” which works “pretty darn well” can handle this just like it handles most other realms of economic interaction. One important point Bilas made today, in response to Golic’s concern about competitive balance, is that this is not the rationale the NCAA offers. Instead, they say, the players do not have market value and that the principles of the “amateur” or “collegiate model” must be paramount. “Competitive balance,” as I have said before, is a shibboleth that all major sporting entities have trotted out forever now to justify defending the economic arrangements that they believe will be most profitable to them. Baseball owners fought free agency for a long time on those grounds, for example, even though that wasn’t what they really cared about. More recently, every sports commissioner has insisted that the owners must keep more of his sports profits in order to ensure competitive balance.
There is no evidence whatsoever that these demands and claims bear any actual relationship to competitive balance. There is, however, very clear evidence, that economic arrangements putatively designed to “improve” competitive balance, do put more money in owners’ pockets. Claims by defenders of the NCAA status quo should be treated in a similar light.
Golic was skeptical that reasonable regulation could work. Greenberg, who agrees with Bilas 100%, countered that there is rampant cheating and an underground economy in big-time college sports now, so even concerns about flaws in a new system don’t really add up to a counterargument in support of the status quo. As Bilas and Greenberg both said repeatedly, it’s ultimately and categorically unjustifiable to deny this one group of non-incarcerated adults, and this one group only, the opportunity to seek compensation in the marketplace for what the market has already demonstrated has clear value.
I am currently reading Charles Clotfelter’s Big Time Sports in American Universities. Clotfelter, a professor at Duke (and who is not an NCAA basher, by the way), makes crystal clear that every American university running a big time college sports program is, in fact, running a major entertainment enterprise as part of its core activities. As the money in the enterprise mounts into the billions, it will be harder to sustain the pretense that those players are brought to campus primarily to receive an education. They aren’t. They are admitted to the university to sustain that lucrative entertainment enterprise.