Monday, September 30, 2019

Paying College Athletes

I don't care so much about the issue - it affects me not in the least. But I care about logic, and there is plenty of faulty reasoning going on about the issue.

The athletes for the two major sports, football and men's basketball at big schools get given much of value.  Twenty-year-olds don't always understand much about value, however. They are given excellent room and board.  The recent stories of basketball players complaining they didn't have enough for meals in college reveals that they sold meal tickets because they wanted the cash.  They are offered plenty of food.  The receive excellent medical care.  Because their health is one of the main things the school is interested in, the school makes sure they get MRIs and other diagnostic tests, proper medication, diagnoses and treatment even for injuries and conditions they did not acquire on the playing fields. You have to be quite wealthy to get better medical care. I fully admit that their risks are higher. Nonetheless, it's very good care.

They have a built in social life, plus a significant leg up in status on campus.  Not that everyone loves athletes, but plenty do admire them and want to be with them. They also have a network to draw on for future jobs, if they choose to use it.  There are plenty of alums who like to know people on the team and are glad to invite them places. They have businesses and know others who do too. These aren't a guarantee, but they are an advantage.

I haven't even mentioned the education yet, have I?  That's actually more of a mixed bag. Not all these athletes can benefit much from it.  They get some benefit from acquiring credits or even a degree even if they are clueless, but most of that is temporary.  People will find out soon enough they were carried through.  Still, they are likely to pick up something, and demonstrating that you can at least show up regularly has value to employers. But some sportswriters overvalue the education given.  Yes, it was a great gift to you, who could not have afforded it otherwise, but not everyone can avail themselves of it.

Value isn't enough for some of the athletes. There is one creditable reason for this and one immature one.  The good reason is that it feels strange and unfair for them to live in comfort while their families back home are still poor. They may get great medical care, but it's their younger sister who needs it more. It must feel strange to eat well when you know that Mom and the siblings are not.

The bad reason is that what they really want is spending money, to show off, to live large. That's not unusual in a 20-year-old, but it doesn't mean we have to regard it as a legitimate complaint.

The next set of problems is a false belief of how much they are going to make.  The athletes and their advocates claim that the school makes money off their image, which they should be entitled to some of. No, that's pretty generic.  If you weren't there in the team picture someone else would be, Jason. It's the school who makes you money, if you end up going pro. They gave you the launching pad.  At the beginning of last season, Zion Williamson was one of 3-4 players viewed as about equal.  Had all of them gone directly to the pros, he would not have been as big a deal nor commanded as much money and a shoe contract.  Getting the chance to show he was better at Duke got him drafted #1.  Autographs?  Please.  How many other than Zion could have sold autographs last year? The same goes for shirts, balls, wristbands.  There isn't the market for college players they think there is.

The feeling that the athletes should be paid comes from something else.  Because some other people make money, and they are involved in the process, people feel some money should flow to the athlete. It just feels more fair.  But as above, it isn't the athlete who is bringing most of the value to the equation, it's the school.  It's what's on the front of the shirt, not the back. Yes, it does help when a smaller school gets a star or a collection of semi-stars and gets into the national spotlight for a year or two.  In those situations, the athlete is providing some value added.  But not much. That can only happen on a foundation of already-existing value.

The best college players are already convinced that their real peer group is the pros, who make a lot of money.  Yet that is only half-true.  Only half of them are going to succeed and make a lot of money in the pros.  Their college teammates, having come that close to glory, believe they are just one tick less worthy than that, and hence worth a lot of money as well.  As I have said before about sports, no one of them has any intrinsic value. Make the basketball a little bigger, make the strike zone a little lower, make the football field a little smaller - or change a few rules in any sport - and different players will succeed. Tennis is arbitrary. Being almost as good but not having any entertainment or teaching value is worth no money at all.

I understand that it feels bad.  Football players show up to school early, put in a lot of effort, injure themselves, work hard, and it feels like they should be compensated for that.  They are, just not in spending money.


james said...

A football hero may get plenty of attention, but dinners cost money.

FWIW, the only football player I knew in college was a Chemistry major. You might thing there was some sampling bias there, but I only knew him because he was my roommate's cousin, not because we had the same classes.

Ben Wyman said...

Here, let me go a little more galaxy brain on this: what is the value of a school having sports at all?

Start young. Your child plays, say, basketball (and this is a hypothetical, I understand that I am your child and did play basketball, but that's not important here). He starts at a young age, maybe six or seven, he plays basketball in the local town league until he is in middle school. His parents pay the $60 for the league, but obviously that doesn't build a basketball gym. He's playing at a school gymnasium or YMCA or something built from other funds.

He then plays for his middle school basketball team. This option is available because we are teaching our children about teamwork, and leadership, and promoting good health, and so as taxpayers we collectively feel that we should build basketball gyms and hire coaches and bus kids around the state to promote this. You could argue against this, but not one would really want to. People feel good about this, as long as there is enough money to enable such events. If having a basketball team means that the school can't afford to have a math or science teacher, things get cut. But pretty much every place finds a way to make sports happen.

Your child then plays for the high school team. There are still aspects of teamwork/leadership/exercise, but now there is something bigger at stake. The games represent something about the school, they provide a visible face of the town, they serve as de facto social events for the students, they connect the community to the school. There is something bigger at play now. The players now represent some sort of value to the school as an asset. It's negligible, and the student still gets the better end of the deal: some other kid can play instead of him, but he gets social status and develops camaraderie and all sorts of positives, in addition to getting to play a game in an expensive building on someone else's dollar.

Now, let's say your child goes to college and plays college basketball. Not at a large school - maybe at a DIII school, maybe lower. All of the benefits you mention exist for this student - perhaps there is a scholarship system and they are given a free ride, perhaps not. Even if not, they will still get excellent medical care and a bump in social status, they get college experiences only a few students are privileged to, and so they are unlikely to feel like they got the raw end of the deal.

However, now the basketball program is in some fashion a business decision by the school. They would not have it if it did not benefit them. A basketball team provides social functions, helps maintain a permanent connection to alumni, and combines with other college athletics to provide the sort of school atmosphere that students will pay exorbitant amounts of money to go to. You can now begin to argue that the student is providing more value than they are receiving, but it is very difficult to specify how. They are deeply replaceable, they are given access to something for free many people would pay money for, and few of them would decide that they are being taken advantage of.

Ben Wyman said...

At some point, though, a Rubicon does get crossed. And I think it's at a point before you supposed.

Let's now say your child is a truly excellent basketball player, and plays basketball for a recognizable school with a large basketball program. Let's say that your child is the seventh-best player for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

Now, this student is not going to make it to the NBA. There is a chance that perhaps this student will be able to play professionally in some capacity if that is something that they want, in Greece or Lithuania or Japan. But that's the future. That's not now.

This student gets all of the things you mentioned: free education, good health care, free food. All to play a game. It's a good trade.

But the balance of benefit has clearly swung to the benefit of the university. Yes, it is the name of the front of the jersey that provides the money, not the name on the back. But nothing exists in a vacuum. I am not well-versed in any sort of economic theory, but the basketball player is now working as part of an enterprise that generates a great deal of money. The fact that he is replaceable does mean his contributions lack value. If an NBA player gets hurt, he is replaced by another NBA player, but you cannot argue that this means the original player lacked value. He was clearly a worker for an organization designed to make money, and therefore was paid according to the market.

Just because some things are inextricably tied doesn't remove the value created. In the same way that the NBA benefits from having LeBron, LeBron benefits from being in the NBA and having its immense global reach. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars he would not have made if he had played with the same level of talent for a Turkish basketball league.

Likewise, the 7th-best Volunteer is elevated by being part of the Tennessee basketball program, once he is so elevated, he provides value that outsizes the payment that he is receiving. Tens of millions of dollars roll into the school from the program, and the argument that "if it wasn't you, it would be someone else" doesn't hold up. Because it wasn't someone else. It was you. You performed the job, and didn't seem to receive such compensation as a freer market would indicate.

When we look at this, we only look at the extreme examples. Zion, once he had joined the Duke Blue Devils and played his first game, was clearly receiving the most extreme gap in value: he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to his school, the NCAA, CBS, ESPN, and so on. He did not receive any of that money.

The problem becomes is that it's very difficult to extricate that value and make it into something concrete. If you say "well, someone like Zion should be able to get a shoe deal while he plays at Duke," that still only affects a very few students. The 7th-best Volunteer doesn't get a shoe deal, yet he's still providing value outsized to what he is receiving.

We are trying to quantify something that is, from the very beginning of the process, relatively unquantifiable. And ultimately, I think that's one of the major reasons that these conversations don't really go anywhere.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You may have changed my mind on this.