Intercollegiate athletics is an equally robust and peculiar American institution. The fact that it is integral in the United States, and in no other nation state on the planet, would suggest that we consider it an important part of an educational experience. That it has and still can help develop civic and moral virtue is inarguable. That the educational component of college sports has been compromised at the highest levels by commercial corruption and failed leadership—at the NCAA and many of its member institutions—is no less self-evident. But as I recently argued in "Hunger Games," corruption and failed leadership should not lead us to accepting a misleading narrative that assumes elite college athletes deserve payment beyond scholarship awards. As my conclusion suggested, responding to moral and political failures at the top by emphasizing material accumulation over and against cultivation of the heart, soul and mind, will not fill the void with lasting solutions that improve the lives of student-athletes, sustain our tradition of intercollegiate athletics, or our democracy.
“Net Gains,” by Andy Schwarz and Colin Weaver, was written as a response to what they consider a heavy burden; namely, me arguing against a Pulitzer Prize winning historian (Taylor Branch), a New York Times columnist (Joe Nocera), and yes, an economist (Schwarz). But where the weight of a perceived burden is impossible to ignore on the surface, working to establish a clear line of thought, without resorting to caricature, has a profoundly liberating effect.
Of the many missteps my detractors made, I only wish to address a few, so as to return to the implicit questions of “Hunger Games”: What are college sports for, and how do they reflect our values, such that they are a part of our educational infrastructure? Absent investigation of these questions, and to compensate for a lack of careful reading (let alone understanding), “Net Gains” echoed the dominant neo-capitalist narrative of exploitation and entitlement by employing sensationalized words like “cartel,” “collusion,” and phrases like “price fixing,” to define the NCAA. It also substituted careful exploration of nouns and verbs with freshly minted adjectives like “Kehoean,” to (I suppose) ridicule a not so recognized freelance writer (me). A light burden to be sure.
With that, one would hope that “Net Gains” could at least outline the market value of college athletes (from one and done basketball mercenaries at Kentucky and Duke, to third-string-grid-iron-bench-warmers at Oregon, Ohio State and Old Dominion), and how offering them additional funds will lead to “a better world,” without altering the ecosystem of the current landscape. For a variety of reasons it could not. First, because matters of this nature are principally ethical and moral, and only secondarily economic, my respondents muddled key ethical distinctions between two options in the market that athletes can choose from—pursue a non-profit (though, in some cases commercially successful) athletic experience in college, or go for the money in the pros. Second, because my respondents insist that paying full scholarship athletes beyond their already generous scholarship awards will not change the ecosystem of college sports, their position could not be factually substantiated as the ecosystem is already rapidly changing at Divisions I-III. Perhaps they don’t think sports like wrestling, and others that make up our Olympic delegation, or programs at many schools facing real fiscal challenges (like my former, and distinguished, rivals at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh) are a part of that system.
Whatever the case may be, as I outlined in “Hunger Games,” a more careful investigation of institutional purpose and the market value of scholarships is a minimal requirement in addressing the current maelstrom of elite colleges sports. On that note, “Net Gains” claims I have vastly overestimated that $500,000 is an appropriate average of full grant in aid for a full scholarship athlete. Unfortunately they offer no dollar amount of their own, and perhaps overlooked that $125,000 per year (equaling $500,000, when multiplied by four) is the same number that Kareem Abdul Jabbar cited in his Jacobin essay “College Athletes of the World Unite.” And where “Net Gains” would suggest that paying select college athletes above and beyond these awards is a necessity that will not alter the competitive balance of intercollegiate athletics, as reported at Forbes and The Chronicle, it already has and will continue to do so.
That the authors of “Net Gains” are, presumably, experts in the theoretical field of economics, and didn’t offer economic models to substantiate their claims while overlooking basic facts, is especially careless and disappointing. But it shouldn’t be surprising, as it reveals the inherent dangers and tendencies of market triumphalism “Hunger Games” was partly intended to illuminate.
Moreover, where I pointed to the fact that very few college athletes are capable of commanding a professional salary in an open market, the authors of “Net Gains” did nothing to investigate or explain some of the rich nuances that add value to the commercial success of elite college sports—such as fan bases that are intimately woven into the fabric of campus life, creating a different kind of romance, nostalgia, institutional and civic (especially at state schools) pride that pro franchises do not engender. A thorough market analysis of an event like the NCAA Final Four—where fans fill a football arena to watch three basketball games, and where only a small fraction of the players will be deemed worthy of professional competition—is impossible without addressing these indispensable components. It’s also negligent, especially when you consider that NBA owners like Mark Cuban—and less notable observers like myself—have argued that the quality of contemporary college basketball is so diluted that it ultimately hinders the professional game writ large. Where it can surely be argued that the infamous “one and done rule”—a stupid regulation, designed by the NBA Players’ Union, not the NCAA, to prohibit overly ambitious high school players from making stupid decisions—violates the spirit of American enterprise, it also protects many young men from falling victim to their own inaccurate assessment of value and future earnings.
Still, “Net Gains” insists these players, including, I suspect, the University of Kentucky’s running list of athletic hirelings, deserve more. But how much? And based on what metrics? And when 60 percent of those gifted enough to secure an NBA contract are slated for bankruptcy, wouldn’t any college athlete’s future earnings be significantly improved if—instead of an additional paycheck—they successfully participated in some courses on personal finance or wealth management? It’s hard to say, but of the seven Wildcats that recently declared for the NBA draft only three are considered long-term pro prospects. Two others are projected as potential second round picks, with the once highly touted Harrison twins outside of the top fifty on some expert lists. Now apart from the fact that many suspect Andrew and Aaron Harrison are leaving Kentucky because they’re afraid of losing playing time (or in the parlance of the market, “value”) to incoming freshman, let’s suppose they don’t get drafted at all, or only end up making the NBA D-League. Not only will they be far away from the luxuries of Lexington, where basketball specific dorms, along with a private chef, and other lavish amenities are all covered (with no tax burden), their now taxable income will top out around $25,000 a year. Suddenly a college scholarship (even one where university administrators and overpaid head coaches place no emphasis on academic education and long term professional stability) doesn’t look so bad.
With such market realities in place, and to the extent that our economic decisions reveal both our values and our tastes, endorsing the spectacle and commercial corruption of college sports—instead of preserving and protecting the educational experience of student-athletes—would indicate that our moral fortitude and our athletic tastes are both wanting. In a similar light, the late historian Tony Judt said of commercially successful films like Avatar and The Day After Tomorrow that “the wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.” According to Judt, this empty economy of thought (nouns) and action (verbs) substitutes “endless commerce for public purpose,” expecting “no higher aspirations from our leaders,” or in this case, our teachers and learners. Attempting to overwhelm us with the power of the market, “Net Gains” couldn’t be bothered with questions of morals or taste: the net effect being the repetition of a careless argument, a misleading narrative, and a surprisingly vacuous collection of economic hints (begging for evidence) to support a position where the only measure of moral authority is, well, money.
Again, the purpose of “Hunger Games” was to challenge both that narrative and authority, while pointing to the corrosive effects our hunger for athletic spectacle has had at non-profit institutions of higher learning (from academic fraud to institutional cover ups of rape and pederasty). Curiously, “Net Gains” sought to undermine my account based on the hypothesis that Roman debauchery will vanquish the pursuit of virtue in an open battle for the heart of the agora. Not surprisingly, its authors missed that I argued it already has, so here we (partly) agree. But where we quickly diverge is in our trust of “the free market,” which, like “the government” or “the law,” is only as strong or sustainable as the ethical comportment of “the individuals” and “the communities” living within it. As Michael Sandel argues in What Money Can’t Buy, there are moral limits to markets, pointing again to the fact that commercial activity only reveals the priorities of individuals, corporations, communities and nation states. Ultimately, this is why the very notion of a “free market” is a myth, especially in a culture that holds itself to standards beyond the pursuit of pleasure, and subsequently regulates things like slavery, human trafficking, prostitution, child-pornography, drugs and fraud. Resting, theoretically and practically, under the imagined guidance of an invisible hand does nothing to disprove the Madisonian adage, if we were angels we would need no governance.
Perhaps the authors of “Net Gains” will overlook the point of my argument again, and will simply refer back to all the billions of dollars exchanging hands in the college sports industry to reiterate their claims of anti-trust. Perhaps they will boast (again) that they are two, among many, smart economists who think hastening the professionalization of college sports (an oxymoron in and of itself) is a good idea. And they may attempt to reassure us that a continental shift in this landscape would do nothing to change its ecosystem, because perhaps economists are accustom to building or releasing a dam that doesn’t alter preexisting terrain. But in the face of such logic (devoid of evidence), we shouldn’t forget that very smart economists—like Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan—once convinced Congress that deregulating the housing market, while simultaneously endorsing the use of credit default swaps and mortgage backed securities, was a good idea. So while my respondents brag that economics cherishes the scientific method, in the very recent past some of its most celebrated practitioners have produced nothing short of a calamitous hypothesis, leading to calamitous results. Likewise, dismissing the non-profit and academic mission of schools, so as to legitimize the commercial corruption of intercollegiate athletics would be no less calamitous—and no different than legitimizing egregious crimes in the world of “financial services” because they’re so common.
So the questions we need to ask are both economic and philosophical. Do we care to protect the values of higher education through the student-athlete experience? Do we care to treat especially gifted athletes as anything more than entertainment devices (too “athletic” to be bothered with academic and intellectual cultivation)? Do we care to protect non-revenue sports that will eventually cave to the moral (and fiscal) bankruptcy of our lust for football and men’s basketball? Or will we capitulate to the power of the invisible hand, and the moral vacancy it massages, excites and releases into the agora?
Against these enticing powers, Saul Bellow once lamented that “fraud, demagogy, opportunism, and profiteering” have become the mechanisms through which “the modern world meets the deepest of human needs.” Longing (pessimistically) for a spirit of preservation that could sustain the treasures of our culture (like education, journalism, civic operas, orchestras, museums, city, state and national parks), Bellow hoped that “tiny minorities” could drive out the abuse of these treasures through “the growth of taste and discrimination.” But in relationship to college sports, “Net Gains” sees nothing to drive out: only joys to be cherished, more money to be made, and a presumably more palatable method of redistribution. Where I argue that the moral void at the heart of intercollegiate athletics demands a reevaluation of educational and institutional purpose, so as to support the long term interests of the individuals and communities that constitute our democracy, an increase in material pleasures for a select few is “Net Gains’” only solution to the hypocrisies of elite college sports.
In this sense, it’s true that mine is a heavier burden on the surface, and I am certainly not arguing as a Pulitzer Prize winner, New York Times columnist, or trained economist. But empty authority often comes in very shiny packages and abides in cavernous mansions. So in response to Schwarz and Weaver’s endorsement of hedonism, conflating it with the pursuit of economic justice, I echo Saul Bellow once more, for “not everybody can be seduced by the promise of bliss.”