Are the UConn women being exploited?

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The UConn women’s basketball team captured its third straight national championship last night, capping a dominant season in which they outscored their opponents by about 42 points per game. Their coach, Geno Auriemma has now won ten national championships at the school and has become a legend, mentioned in the same breath (at least by some) as John Wooden.

Though women’s sports – particularly team sports – receive far less attention than men’s, there is a strain of nostalgia in some of its coverage. Whereas discussion of big time men’s collegiate athletics is often dominated by talk of scandal, one-and-done and other off-the-field nuisances, women’s sports are often viewed as a relative bastion of rectitude. In basketball, for instance, by far the highest profile of the women’s team sports, it is common to talk about the players’ less flashy, showboating style, their greater fealty to team principles and, as Harvey Araton noted about Auriemma’s players this morning, the fact that they all graduate (the contrast at UConn, given the men’s woeful academic performance in recent years, is especially striking).

As has been evident at UNC, women’s college athletics aren’t immune to scandal or academic corner-cutting. But the structures, incentives and norms certainly differ in women’s sports compared to the men. Al of which makes it easy to view the women’s games with some wistfulness.

But none of that should us to a basic fact – the women are still being exploited. According to university data, the UConn women’s team generated nearly $11 million in revenue in 2010-11. One can safely assume the figure is higher now. The data the university reported differ from those collected by the Department of Education, but the school data show the women operating at a profit of nearly four million dollars, almost identical to the men in 2011 (a year in which Jim Calhoun won his third national championship).

Dave Berri has pointed out that in the typical pro sports arrangement in North America, players earn about half the revenue generated by the team for which they play. By that standard, the UConn women’s wage bill should have been almost $5.5 million in 2011. Their star players today, including Breanna Stewart likely have a market value in excess of half a million dollars a year.

I can hear all the objections: these women would be nothing without Auriemma. No one would pay attention to the women. They’re getting a great opportunity to get an education. And so on.

None of these wash. UConn women’s basketball is a popular venture, yes, and Auriemma made it so. He’s earning serious money for his efforts, too, over $2 million this season. But it doesn’t follow that none of his players, including his stars – the one’s who help him win – have no market value. If Auriemma lost Stewart to Notre Dame before last night’s game, don’t you think the odds are pretty good that the Fighting Irish would have won?

And if that logic holds – that only the coach matters and, therefore only he should get paid – at the collegiate level, it ought to hold at the pro level, too. Who on New England, other than Tom Brady, Gronkowski and a couple of other guys are worth much of anything, given that the coach seems to win 12-13 games a year regardless of whom else he runs out there?

The women provide a nice refuge for commentators who want to escape all the nagging, annoying off-the-field stuff that has compromised the unsullied enjoyment of rooting for collegiate athletics. They play hard, they don’t remonstrate, they listen to their coach, they graduate.

That’s a nice, tidy story, a counter-cautionary tale to the aggravating and enervating reality of big time men’s athletics. But if the women are making their school real money, they should be earning real salaries. They’re women, not “girls,” adults who should be paid for their efforts.

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