Another weak defense of the collegiate model

Jonathan Chait, the often excellent political writer, is a Michigan alum. He’s something of a skeptic when it comes to college athletes as laborers. He believes there is something distinctive about college athletics that disallows easy comparisons – and criticisms – of the collegiate model relative to the professional leagues.

In that vein, Chait recently wrote that Jim Harbaugh’s decision to sign with his alma mater was an act of “professional irrationality,” provided you “think of college football as nothing more than a business.” Ipso facto, Chait says, that’s the wrong way to think about it. Instead, we should take Harbaugh at his word, when he said a decade ago that “he believes he did not merely provide free labor in return for skill development but belonged to a community; that this community stands in his mind for something larger than the self-interest of its component parts; that all this talk about turning boys into men is not just hokum.”

This is weak. Let’s start with the supposed massive economic sacrifice Chait suggests Harbaugh made to come home. Chait says that “NFL franchises waved considerably larger sums” than Harbaugh signed for at Michigan. As evidence, Chait links to a tweet by a FOX Sports 1 NFL “insider,” Mike Garafolo, which said that the Raiders offered more money than Michigan. There is no mention of “considerably larger sums,” and the tweet itself was widely questioned, since there is no hard evidence of any offer by the Raiders. Furthermore, at $5 mil a year in base salary, Harbaugh is making the same salary, more or less, that he made at his most recent NFL job. And bonus possibilities could send his pay much higher. Not to mention, as a number of Chait’s commenters pointed out, Harbaugh’s take home pay will benefit substantially because of the difference in Michigan and California taxes.  And let me ask a rhetorical question – do you think Harbaugh would have agreed to coach Michigan if they *only* offered, say, three million dollars a year? We can answer that question with 100% certainty.

In sum, it’s not as if Harbaugh agreed to become a pauper to coach the team in Ann Arbor.

But if the standard for deeming an enterprise something other than a cold-blooded professional one is that some of its participants will leave money on the table, there are plenty of examples to show that the professional leagues themselves embody the values of community, connection and “culture” that go beyond dollars and cents. For example, as I recently wrote about, Dirk Nowitzki turned down a *lot* of money to re-sign with the Mavericks on terms extraordinarily favorable to the franchise. His salary this year, at just under $8 million, makes him just the fifth highest player on his own team. This is a future Hall of Famer, the greatest star in the history of the franchise and, to boot, a guy the estimable Bill Simmons regarded just last season as a top-five MVP candidate (whether that’s a good assessment is irrelevant to this discussion). Nowitzki’s teammate Chandler Parsons, for crying out loud, is making almost double Dirk’s salary. That Dirk left more money on the table than Harbaugh did is scarcely debatable. And why did he do it? To take Dirk at his word, he did so out of loyalty, a greater desire to help an organization that has given him so much and because, in his relative dotage, there are more important things in life than money and personal accomplishments. There are many, many other examples of pro athletes giving “hometown” discounts, including very recently Tom Brady and LeBron James.

Does all this mean that pro sports aren’t really “professional,” since all these men committed acts of “professional irrationality” at least comparable to Harbaugh’s?

The fact that sports, at all levels, evokes powerful emotions, a sense of bonding and community and, indeed, irrationality of all sorts is simply irrelevant to the legal, moral and political questions surrounding the nature of collegiate athletic labor.

Suggesting otherwise is silly.

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