Pay or Don't Play: Paying College Athletes Isn't Just Fair to Players; It Could Improve College Basketball

By Barbash, Louis | The Washington Monthly, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

Pay or Don't Play: Paying College Athletes Isn't Just Fair to Players; It Could Improve College Basketball


Barbash, Louis, The Washington Monthly


The name says it: the NCAA Elite Eight, the eight best teams in college basketball, survivors of a long, highly competitive season and three hard-fought rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, March Madness. And yet players from seven of the eight colleges, underclassmen with up to three years of eligibility left, won't be back this fall. What's more, nine of the top ten picks in this year's June NBA draft, six of whom played in the NCAA tournament, are leaving college basketball before exhausting their eligibility.

The departure of so many high-performing players has taken its toll on the NCAA's product, intercollegiate basketball. College basketball "this season has been a long, fitful snooze," wrote columnist Dave Kindred in the Washington Post. The departure of players who left for the pros after their freshman year, Kindred wrote, "left spaces filled by lesser players." "Put bluntly, college basketball stinks," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley. "After nearly two decades of descent the sport has hit bottom."

For years, NCAA basketball was the only game in town for players with ambitions to play in the NBA. Now, dozens every year desert the college game for something they can't get in college--the chance to share in the revenues their performances create--and their departures have fractured the college basketball cartel's hold on its sport.

It's more than just a basketball story. Like many a monopoly and oligopoly before it--like Standard Oil a century ago, like Detroit's Big Three, like IBM, like Polaroid--the central tenet of the NCAA's dominance, the unpaid student-athlete, has been undermined. Like them, it can learn to compete under the new rules, or it can dig in its heels and risk irrelevance.

In 1990, I suggested in the Washington Monthly that college players ought to be paid and should not be required to be students at the college whose team they play for. They should have done it then. They should do it now: give players what they need and what they deserve to stick with college teams. Think of it as kind of a koan: To hold on, they must let go. But will they? Will they adapt and survive, like IBM has? Or will they hold on, like Polaroid, until they go into bankruptcy and are sold for their parts and brands?

The NCAA is often referred to as a cartel. But its power has historically been dependent on its symbiotic relationship with the NBA. The NBA prohibited its teams from signing college players before their class graduated, guaranteeing the NCAA a steady supply of unpaid labor whose performance could be monetized in the form of tickets, T-shirts, and TV rights. And the NBA used college basketball as a free minor-league system.

So it worked for college basketball and the NBA. For the players? Well, not so much.

Yes, they got four years of college, provided at wholesale, priced at retail. But recurring scandals surrounding college players' academic eligibility called into question how high a value some colleges and some players attached to whatever education was taking place.

Players also ran the risk that injuries would diminish or destroy their value to pro teams and thus their career prospects. And, of course, they played for free, donating services worth millions of dollars.

In recent years, the manifest unfairness of this arrangement has attracted more attention and criticism from writers like the Atlantic's Taylor Branch, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, ESPN's Michael Wilbon, and Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock, all of whom have called for college players to be paid.

But while writers have debated, the market has moved. Dozens of the players whose exploitation writers decried started getting paid. Not by colleges--NCAA rules on that haven't changed. Rather, having been refused compensation by the colleges that make millions from their performance, they now sell their services to teams that will pay them to play, whether or not they attend college. …

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