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On the Trail: Long Live Necessary Evils. That Aren't Actually, You Know, Evil, Per Se

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This will be slightly more in-depth than SMQ's last venture into the murky, mostly foreign shadowlands of recruiting, partially as a penance: SMQ takes a personal day to start the week, turns his attention to doctored photos of Joe Paterno for an instant on an innocent offseason Monday, and suddenly fundamental aspects of college football governance are under multi-pronged attack! And from the highest levels of the Web's mental gridiron might (which, no, is not oxymoronic, smartass), no less, opinions that are not new, but are biting and compelling nevertheless: Orson Swindle at EDSBS opened a pretty nasty can, and a 100-plus-comment thread, against the "grossly unequal power differential" enforced by NCAA fiat, and Brian Cook at MGoBlog explored the sport's demise in the form of very fan-unfriendly moves, at tremendous financial gain, by mega schools everywhere.

To the latter, SMQ has little to add or dispute, rules changes and skyrocketing coach's salaries being in effect the middle finger to fans Brian describes, and any call for fewer Michigan-Vanderbilt or Michigan-Eastern Michigan matchups and their equivalents is right and good. Brian has great suggestions to end such very profitable nonsense, only one of which involves disfiguring Ryan Seacrest, which he rightly pegs as pie-in-the-sky advice to the sport's power brokers (they can't hear you, Brian, because they have money in their ears). To Orson's assessment, though, at least until he fulfills his promise to explain why such exploitation is "necessary," SMQ has many generalized counterpoints to add.

The first of these is: Orson is probably right about the NCAA at large, the hypocritical profit-mongers. It's not often SMQ finds himself on the side of the "status quo" where the NCAA or much of anything else is concerned, and the corruption both in service of and in violation of the reigning system of college sports governance makes him a fairly uneasy defender of its current mechanisms and its rather mealy-mouthed president. But when it comes to players being paid, SMQ thinks it's a terrible idea for college sports. For all college sports. And for reasons that have nothing to do with the sanctity and wide-eyed innocence of the poor recruit paying his dues among the hallowed halls of higher education. Or, at least, very, very little to do with all of that.

This response will come in two, maybe three parts (we'll see if anything's necessary after part two), the second of which will more directly address Orson's specific take on the agreement between institution and prospect during the creepy (on that adjective we agree) process of recruiting. First, it's essential to any argument for SMQ to define why he thinks money is the root of, well, not evil, but substantial losses in the sports market.

You've heard this before: a pure market assessment of sports in the same terms as the rest of the economy is tough because sports leagues - which includes the NCAA in this case - don't operate in the same way as other businesses: unlike Microsoft, for example, which benefits from crushing its competition and establishing a monopoly, sports leagues are marketing competition. In a free market scenario (which doesn't exactly exist, especially where tax money is involved on the college end), competition is essentially the commodity of the NFL, and of the NCAA. So while the New England Patriots or Southern Cal as a team may benefit from destroying the competition and creating a monopoly on winning, their sports in general do not, and in fact benefit from creating competition and fostering it to greatest extent possible - the less competitive the average game, the fewer teams have an opportunity to win championships and other big rewards (a conference title or a nice bowl game might do, or a playoff spot), the less the overall interest, and the less advertising and ticket revenue to rake in. So sports leagues have an great incentive to institute some degree of trust-busting.

This is, in fact, all about the Benjamins.
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The NFL, free of academic mandates, fosters competition...

...with an extremely successful socialistic model based on revenue sharing and a salary cap that keeps a few teams from stocking up, Yankees-style, on the best players; the subsequent management sacrifices drum up strategic interest in their own right. The NCAA, bound absolutely by academic mandates, fosters competition in its ranks - because it is competing for viewers and especially ticket sales against pro leagues, the NFL and NBA - by imposing its version of the salary cap: a ban on paying players outside of not-insignificant scholarship money, which keeps the few richest schools from buying up, Red Sox-style, all the best high school prospects (this happens, anyway, of course, because the NCAA can't reasonably have control of alumni giving and the like, or on university and athletic department expenditures, but presumably to a lesser degree than in a spending free-for-all, which would not likely allow the likes of Utah, West Virginia, Wake Forest and Boise State much of a chance at the BCS during the last three years).

Last year, Michael Lewis, amid many excellent charges about keeping athletes from a legitimate education and the NCAA's more or less bogus tax-exempt status, told Orson

...we've created a system that prevents those two groups [monied boosters and athletes] from having anything meaningful to do with each other. It's called the NCAA. If the rich white businessman so much as buys lunch for one of these poor black kids, it's a violation. So the only way the relationship occurs is illicitly and out of sight.
The chief purpose of [the NCAA's] investigative and enforcement division is to prevent these two groups of people from having any meaningful relationship with each other because they're afraid of the corruption or professionalization of what they pretend is an amateur sport.

Why? To be mean? What is the Association's interest in maintaining this degree of separation? Is it at odds with the long-term interests of the sports' marketability? Of a great number of its athletes? Is there a difference between the two?

The NCAA's enthusiasm for maintaining the "amateurism" of the sport to the greatest extent it can is part a sentimental effort at bygone virtue and much larger part a good business decision: SMQ honestly has no good, concrete explanation for preferring the collegiates to the obviously better athletes in the pros, but he is sure it derives in some intangible, probably even nostalgic way from the institutional backing of the former. Paying players, even a token amount, even just semantically, creates psychologically the equivalent of the World League or any of a half dozen other failed retreads of sub-NFL developmental efforts (aside from financially ruining many, many programs that can't afford to pay players, unless you'd prefer to cut the riffraff in favor of a league of a few dozen heavyweights cutting each other down week after week rather than padding win totals with Homecoming patsies, further monopolizing the top other words, a pro league). There's no denying part of the distaste for that hypothetical is based largely on maintaining intangible niceties, "tradition" and "atmosphere" and so forth, but those aspects are very integral to the product of college football, they are part of its competitive advantage, and give the sport a financial interest in preserving whatever defining characteristics set it apart from its bigger, faster, stronger, wealthier, and often exceedingly duller competitors. The more college football is like pro football, and necessarily a "minor league" of pro football, the more expendable and uninteresting it becomes. You know, like every other minor league in every sport.

I'm a Realist made this argument and other cogent points more lucidly than SMQ last April, in the midst of the first wave of the Reggie Bush scandal, and also pointed out what's often forgotten when demanding a "fair share" for the big money athletes: federal laws virtually prohibit it in the interest of fostering other sports that could not nearly survive in a "true market."

That in SMQ's mind is the overarching point of view from the capitalist perspective, i.e., the NCAA's. If in your view that is an attempt to justify an unjust exploitation of the "labor," the athlete, ask what role the consumer plays and has played in perpetuating that exploitation - does our interest in college football, as consumers, viewers of advertising, buyers of tickets, boosters of funds, depend on it? Is the product's viability as such dependent on the subjugation of its labor to the outdated system that continues to make it a marketable commodity? Given the popularity - hence, money - at stake if the NCAA were to fundamentally change that system, is it fair to say college football could not exist as a competitive commodity as we know it without that exploitation? SMQ isn't going answer resoundingly "yes," but there is a substantial argument in that line of thought.

But that's only if you think the labor in this case is being treated unfairly, and SMQ doesn't think that's true in the case of college football today, not in a realistic sense, not when the larger sociological and, yes, economic impact of being able to play sports in college is considered. The other capitalistic element at work here, at work everywhere in our society, is the most important in any system of free exchange and labor: volition. To the extent market terms define the scenario (they shouldn't completely in a discussion involving mostly state-funded institutions, where huge amounts of regulation and taxpayer-supported altruism is concerned), players as legal aduts voluntarily agree to a standard "contract" offered by universities - and, essentially, by proxy, the NCAA - presumably because they believe it will maximize their satisfaction. "Satisfaction" is not limited to a short term, "I like football, I will play football" sense, but a long term investment of the same type made by the overwhelming majority of college students based on perceived benefits not only in the time spent at the university (of which athletes receive far more than the typical student), but the potential career prospects that almost certainly could have never been achieved without the university (of which a very small percentage of athletes receive far more than the typical student). SMQ is quite certain that, if physically capable, most of the millions of fans that pack stadiums each season would jump on the field and play in a second even with no chance of advancing to the next level; playing sports in college is generally considered a privilege.

Still, athletes aren't bound to go to college, and have the same option as any potential student: enter school, or enter the marketplace. NFL rules - probably wisely, though the sports' inherent physicality ensures the "problem" is not on the same scale as the NBA's - prohibit athletes from coming straight from high school, but there is no general rule prohibiting a player from entering another pro league in the meantime, or, if the exploitation were great enough, for many players to form a three-year developmental league that would serve the same purpose, in terms of the ultimate goal of signing an NFL contract, as college. Athletes good enough to earn a Bowl Subdivision athletic scholarship out of high school possess a highly marketable skill, they are in demand, and continue at this point, almost unanimously, to decide the restrictive university system is nevertheless the best long-term incubator of that skill, and the most profitable career path.

Next, SMQ will look at why that might be, what the athlete gets out of college compared to what he puts in, and whether that constitutes more or less a fair exchange of services. Stay tuned.