Miller: Dissecting the NCAA argument against paying college athletes

Oct. 22, 2015, 12:25 a.m.

Forget Texas A&M-Alabama: The biggest showdown in College Station this past week was of the Oxford, not gridiron, variety.

You read that right: The real battle in Texas didn’t take place at palatial Kyle Field, or any athletic venue for the matter. Though it occurred in a meeting hall on A&M’s campus with only a slightly smaller capacity than the House That Johnny Built, it nonetheless featured two heavy hitters.

In one corner: Jay Bilas, former Duke basketball player and current ESPN personality; in the other, Oliver Luck, Executive Vice President of the NCAA, father of Andrew and former Director of Athletics at his alma mater, West Virginia. In a 90-minute debate sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the pair took up the question: Should college athletes be allowed to be paid? Bilas, a longtime supporter of athletes’ rights, argued in the affirmative, while Luck, on the job with the NCAA for less than a year, more or less walked the party line, defending his organization’s system of amateurism with little more than blanket statements and glittering generalities.

What follows is an analysis of and response to four of Luck’s main talking points throughout the evening.

“I believe it would be a bad mistake to create on campus an employer-employee relationship with student-athletes. That is a relationship I don’t believe has any role on campus.”

Except the employer-employee relationship already exists between students and their institutions on nearly every college campus in America — but it’s only an issue when athletes demand their rightful slice on the multi-billion dollar industry that is collegiate athletics.

What Luck, his colleagues in Indianapolis and his administrative peers around the nation seem to believe is that college athletes cannot be both students and employees for the reason that the act of working (and making money) while studying and pursuing a degree somehow (someway) erodes the integrity and value of the educational process.

Luck and his fellow suits seem to forget, however, that nearly 80 percent of American college students work while attending classes, a number likely due to the skyrocketing costs of higher education. While most students work off-campus, there are a portion that are technically employees — and students — at their institution. Here at Stanford, students work in the campus bookstore, in the gyms, in on-campus eating establishments and in various academic departments (remember those emails you received about being a paid research assistant during the summer, or a student intern during the school year?).

Not only that, athletics departments routinely employ non-athlete students (i.e. student managers), who act as both learners and hourly workers at the same time (gasp). And yet no issues are raised concerning the integrity of these students’ education — as if being an employee has any bearing on one’s status as a student. It doesn’t, of course, but Luck and the NCAA are too focused on controlling their athletes to realize the reality of the situation. A few questions to consider: If non-athlete students can be institutional employees, why can’t athletes (for performing sport-related services)? What’s so wrong with earning money via athletic ability?

“There are options — legitimate options [for athletes who don’t want to attend college]…in fact, even football, our most popular college sport, does have options for an 18 year-old. It’s called the Canadian Football League or the Arena League.”

Really? The CFL and AFL are legitimate options for high school athletes who don’t want to play school? When was the last time a 5-star recruit headed up north after graduation, or went to go play for the Arizona Rattlers? (Hint: Never.) The CFL is for NFL castoffs, and AFL is barely a functioning enterprise. Legitimate as alternative player development systems to the NCAA? Give me a break.

“I would also not support what many folks call the ‘Olympic Model,’ which would allow students to use their position or status as athletes to earn third-party revenue from companies or individuals…I believe with payment comes the very difficult task of motivating students to focus on what they really need to get out of their four, five, six year experience, which is an education.”

Leaving Luck’s spectacularly paternalistic tone aside for a moment, let me address the blatant and callous unfairness of his stance. Luck and the NCAA’s opposition to the ‘Olympic Model’ and “unwavering commitment” to amateurism has lead to college athletes becoming the most economically restricted cohort on college campuses.

Non-athlete students are able to “earn third party revenue” with impunity: An English major who writes a bestselling novel is able to profit from the sale without fear his/her financial aid will be slashed; artists can sell their work/pieces for whatever the market will bear; and coding geniuses can freely license their programs to tech companies.

The bottom line is that countless college students capitalize on whatever talents/skills they have without compromising their academic achievement as a result. Unlike their peers, however, college athletes are prohibited from monetizing their most marketable (i.e. athletic) skills, essentially destroying whatever earning potential they might have had. And if they’re caught signing autographs or endorsing products, their eligibility (and, by extension, their scholarship) is immediately jeopardized.

If the powers that be in college sports were really concerned about integrating athletes into the wider campus community, they wouldn’t differentiate those athletes by placing unreasonably burdensome and disparate restrictions on the economic activities in which they can engage. Again, though, the NCAA is far too concerned about exerting as much control over their athletes as they can too care about whether those individuals are truly getting the most out of their collegiate experience.

“But we also ask of many of our student-athletes to be active, to learn competition, to learn the values of persistence and teamwork and discipline and all those values we create.”

Sure, Luck wants the NCAA’s athletes to learn the value of competition — except in their marketplace for their services. Indeed, the “anti-competitive,” cartel-like practices of the NCAA have been the crux of the antitrust lawsuits filed against the organization.

While the NCAA preaches the importance of on-field competition, it does everything in its power to stifle it in the marketplace for athletes’ services. The most blatant of these offenses is the governing body’s per se illegal (in direct contravention of the Sherman Antitrust Act) price-fixing agreements: By mandating that schools may only offer scholarships that cover tuition, room/board, fees for required textbooks (GIA) and, now, a cost of attendance stipend (COA), the NCAA prevents schools from freely competing for the services of high schoolers.

This is pure, unadulterated cost control whereby the member institutions collude (agree) with one another to fix the price for athletic services at the level of GIA plus COA. So yeah, the NCAA thinks competition is great — but not when it would result in athletes getting anything more than what the organizations believe they deserve. The reality is that in the absence of the NCAA’s caps on pay, college athletes — especially those in the revenue sports — would receive a more lucrative package of benefits to play sports for their institution (employer).


Is Cameron Miller’s criticism against the NCAA’s decision to prevent college athletes from earning money valid? Let him know by sending him an email at cmiller6 ‘at’

Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 246 and is the men's and women's golf writer. He also writes on NCAA-related matters. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at [email protected].

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