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Noted Economists Challenge NCAA; Holtz, May Volunteer to Debate

The Wizard of Odds points this morning to two recent college football posts by The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell on his site, the first concerning Rhett Bomar's "private deal" with a Norman car dealer that led to Lexusgate, and the next - as an extension of the "ridiculousness" of the Ramon McElratheby case at Clemson - citing research that the college game is dominated by a "monopolistic cabal" of a few programs consistently concentrated at the top as a pretext to speculate on the feasibility of abolishing the NCAA altogether. Some results, according to Gladwell's excerpting from a paper delivered by New Mexico State professor Jim Peach at the Western Social Science Association as the season kicked off this weekend:

there is little evidence that the NCAA rules and regulations have promoted competitive balance in college athletics and no a priori reason to think that eliminating the rules would change the competitive balance situation.. Would such price competition alter the distribution of playing talent among academic institutions?  No one knows for certain, but it is worth noting that the power schools in football were the power schools before the imposition of NCAA regulations.  From an economic perspective, open bidding for athletes is similar to the situation in Major League Baseball (MLB) when the reserve clause was eliminated and the era of free-agency began.  Sports economists rely heavily on the Rottenberg invariance principle when analyzing free agency[2].  Essentially, this principle suggests that free agency would not affect the distribution of talent but would affect the distribution of funds between owners and players.  There is also the possibility that eliminating the NCAA eligibility and financial restrictions might increase competitive balance, particularly in football.  In an unrestricted system, wages for first-team student athletes at non-power schools might be higher than wages for second or third team talent at the power schools.  So, it is possible that the distribution of student athlete talent could change.

SMQ is no economist, but has broached this matter before in a post on the then-raging Reggie Bush housing scandal in April, in which he noted the "value" - to co-opt the libertarian, Objectivist approach to a free market competition - being protected by the NCAA is not amateurism, but competition, that the existence of successful socialist organizations consisting of voluntary membership is not precluded by a wider free market society (as evidenced by the world's most successful socialist, income-redistributing institution, the NFL) and that paying players would not only undermine competition, but also, by essentially competing with the NFL for players, would turn major college football into an utterly ingorable farm system. SMQ also contends players are already paid via scholarship, which is tangibly worth thousands of dollars and incalcuable thousands more on top of its face value in income gained later as a result of the education - the vast majority of NCAA-governed players, after all, do not become professionals, or even attempt it. For the sake of their own health and popularity, schools have a vested interest in maintaining a governing body, and that governing body has an interest in promoting competition.

That said, the "Wages of Wins" research shows that competition since the crackdown on under-the-table payments and institution of scholarship limitations hasn't dramatically improved - the same 20-25 teams that were winning before, it notes, are overwhelmingly garnering top ten finishes over the past few decades. SMQ would attribute this to "rich get richer/nothing succeeds like success" and other applicable cliches, and the same residual effects that have kept the white population so much better off than the black population despite the abolishment of the unfair rules that created the original disparity.

In terms of paying players, one solution might be the establishment of a committee that could hear appeals to the rules and grant exceptions where it sees fit, such as in the case of Drew Tate and Jeremy Bloom, or of a verifiable off-season job. Gladwell's examples are good tests of the kind of payment the committee might agree to allow (to McElrathbey) and the kind it would not (to Bomar, who, Gladwell fails to note - though his commenters do not - was clearly not paid for services rendered at his "job," but for being a football player; a noted OU booster paid him an amount far in excess of normal wages for hours the quarterback wasn't even onsite). This sort of policing would be admittedly unwieldy and would result in more bureaucracy, but hopefully also more flexibility and fairness.

Abolishing the NCAA wouldn't be much of an answer to the discrepancies, as the end result of the subsequent would likely be something of a subsidized, substandard pro league. And what of the smaller schools and athletes in dozens of sports outside of major football and basketball? Reforming the association, though, is pretty much a universal idea.