Business vs. the Market, college sports edition

NCAA Basketball: Marshall at Kentucky

(Willie Cauley-Stein)

Prevalent framing of American economic discourse notwithstanding, it is well understood by anyone paying attention that powerful economic interests in this country work very hard to avoid or limit market competition, insofar as doing so pads their bottom lines. No one has more thoroughly chronicled the way this “conservative nanny state” works than the economist Dean Baker. Once you come to terms with how Big Oil, or Big Medicine, or Big Agriculture use political connections to fatten their wallets, the degree to which big business is, as a matter of course, a sworn enemy of true market competition becomes plain to see (Kevin Phillips’ 2004 book, American Dynasty, about the Bush family’s intertwined oil, intelligence and government connections illustrates these dynamics vividly).

So, it should not actually be a surprise that ESPN’s Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell is only a booster of the “market” when the market benefits powerful interests. This means, of course, that when big business directly opposes the market, Rovell will predictably be on the side of the former, not the latter. In this context, Rovell got into a twitter spat with some folks this weekend, including Patrick Hruby and Andy Schwarz, about paying college athletes. One particular tweet of Rovell’s drew particular pushback.

Here’s the tweet in question:

Kevin Draper said most of what needs to be said about Rovell’s blinkered view of things:

Rovell’s argument is a spectacular example of modern capitalism in action, where those with the most economic power promote the advantages of a free market … except when they don’t. He is an ardent believer in the free market who has come to the paternalistic conclusion that a disadvantaged class shouldn’t have access to that market. If Rovell were promoting certain regulations of the free market in order to protect the powerless from the powerful, that might be one thing, but he’s not. He’s promoting a regulation that only serves to limit the power of the already powerless, by obstructing the workings of the market.

Let me just add one point. I can assure you that a good half the Super Bowl audience could not name more than five players on a Super Bowl team. According to Rovell, that means that unless your name is Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, you shouldn’t be paid. As Schwarz, Hruby and Draper pointed out, if Rovell is so sure that players like Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein (the example Draper uses) have no market value because most casual NCAA watchers don’t know who he is, then there needn’t be a rule fixing the cost of college player compensation at a scholarship. The market – the thing that Rovell spends 95% of his time celebrating – will sort that out.

The reality, of course, is that a Cauley-Stein would have value, because he helps Kentucky win games and that helps make the school money. Economists like Dave Berri, who’ve actually studied these issues, have come to some pretty clear conclusions about what college players are worth and it’s not zero dollars.

Of course, Rovell’s views reveal a fundamental elitism. Since 99.9% of us toil in relative anonymity, we presumably have no market value, either. Which means, according to Rovell, that there ought to be rules actually preventing us from being paid.

I am sure that Rovell doesn’t really believe that. But when you imbibe the Kool-aid of the putative sanctity of the collegiate sport model and combine that with an essentially slavish devotion to the prerogatives of the powerful, you end up twisting yourself in knots the way Rovell has.



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