Good debunking of the “ideal” of college “amateurism”

Nursing a fever, so will keep this relatively brief.

A couple of weeks back, the political commentator Jonathan Chait who, like myself, is a Michigan alum, wrote that college athletes should not be allowed to their autographs or likenesses for money.

His basic argument is that college sports is a unique enterprise which rests, in considerable part on the ideal of “amateurism.” (the word is used by Neil Irwin, to whom Chait is responding, not by Chait himself, but Chait clearly believes this to be a major part of the appeal of college sports). If college sports were turned into just another minor league, which Chait presumes would ensue if players could make money selling autographs and so on, they would lose much of their popularity, given that minor leagues generate only limited interest. Chait does acknowledge that “rampant marketization” is a problem, but believes the answer is less of it, not more.

Scott Lemieux responded to Chait and, to my mind anyway, quite effectively demolished his arguments. On the question of what makes college football and men’s basketball appealing (since those are the two sports that prompt all the pay-for-play commentary), Lemieux is rightly dismissive, calling “implausible in the extreme” the notion that college football will lose lots of fans if players can make money off of jersey sales:

“fans in Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa and Eugene and Gainesville will continue to watch NCAA football in large numbers even if players are permitted to make money when jerseys with their numbers are sold to fans.”

(A separate question is what, precisely, the consequences of a decline in popularity in big time college athletics would be. That’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one).

Lemieux also rightly ridicules the idea of “amateurism” in the context of big-time collegiate athletics:

“‘amateurism’ is to athletics what “states’ rights” is to politics. Nobody actually cares about it, but they’re willing to pretend to care about it if it allows them to defend an unjust system that can’t be defended on the merits.”

Lemieux then deconstructs Chait’s arguments about competitive balance, which I’ve also written about before. It’s not obvious to me that competitive balance would worsen in Chait’s (or Colin Cowherd’s) nightmare scenario. In fact, as Lemieux points out, it’s almost non-existent now, especially in college football, and might actually improve marginally.

But competitive balance tends to be a canard, invoked by the major stakeholders in an enterprise to dress up their desire to keep as much money as for themselves as possible while pretending to be concerned about some larger public good. On this point, Lemieux writes:

Whenever you hear the phrase “competitive balance” being invoked, there’s a roughly 99 percent chance that it’s being invoked by someone who favors more money being put into the pockets of the owners. The NCAA is just a particularly extreme example, only substitute “coaches” and “bureaucrats” rather than “owners.”

Chait’s call for less marketization, not more, is cute, but as Lemieux says: “that horse is two continents over from the barn.” Lemieux concludes:

“The demand for NCAA sports means that large amounts of money are going to be generated; the only question is who will get it. To allow everyone but the players to make money is both immoral and based on empirically erroneous premises.”

Chait’s defending a principle that doesn’t really exist. It would help this discussion if we could get beyond what we wish the enterprise to be and deal with the reality of it.

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