Paying College Football Players Is Only Fair

A professor at Ohio State recently joined the apology parade so tragically common these days in academia. His offense was having expressed a positive view of college football. In his abject statement of remorse, he confessed to having given insufficient attention to how the sport exploits young Black men.

Although coerced apologies are inimical to academic freedom, there’s a good case to be made that colleges are indeed guilty of exploiting their football players, about half of whom are Black. As so often, the solution is a free market: To avoid exploitation, pay the players their market value.

Right now, the big-time football schools (known as the “Power 5") essentially run a cartel, under the management of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The cartel limits the pay and benefits players can receive in return for their services. As the economists Allen R. Sanderson and John J. Siegfried note in a 2015 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, college athletics is the only part of campus life in which an outside entity is allowed to limit wages. Thus the substantial rents provided by Power 5 football are retained by the schools.

And even putting aside the television and ticket revenue big-time football brings in, the gains from fielding competitive football teams are considerable. Sanderson and Siegfried point to prior research showing that state legislatures appropriate significantly more money to schools that field football teams than to similarly situated schools that don’t. More recent work finds that within the big football conferences, success on the field predicts higher alumni giving to athletics (for giving outside athletics, the data are unclear), more and better applications for admission, and an increase in a school’s overall academic reputation — all made possible by the cartel.

Like many football fans, I worry that the players this system exploits are disproportionately Black. An August 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Studies confirms this instinct. By analyzing Power 5 rosters, the authors find that limits on pay transfer significant resources away from Black students and poorer students and toward White students and wealthier students. In other words, the system is regressive.

How much is transferred away? The authors of the NBER paper calculate that if the student athletes were able to collectively bargain for wages, the median Power 5 football player would receive — wait for it! — about $360,000 a year. To be sure, the money would be heavily weighted toward the most valuable players on the field. The starting quarterback, for example, would earn around $2.4 million. But even backups would receive about $140,000 each. Cut these estimates in half and the amount of exploitation remains enormous.

The Power 5 conferences certainly have the money to pay football players for their labor. They just use it for other things. A few years ago, Auburn University spent nearly $14 million on a five-story-high scoreboard so bright that on a clear night the glow can be seen 30 miles away. Texas A&M renovated its football stadium at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars

One might argue that if the money goes to the players directly rather than into fancier stadiums, fans will be less likely to attend. I’m skeptical. If true, however, this claim would provide further evidence that the college football cartel is systematically undercompensating its players. Here’s an analogy: Imagine a restaurant everybody loves because the decor is fancy, the portions are sumptuous, and the prices are low. What would happen if we discovered that to keep everything so fancy and cheap for the diners, the owners paid the workers nothing more than expense money? We’d all be furious.

Supporters of the current system offer a variety of arguments, including the claim that paying college athletes would risk erosion of the connection between the players and the values of the institution where they’re enrolled. But perhaps the most common objection to paying collegiate athletes is that the scholarship itself is adequate compensation. The data remain unclear on whether college athletes as a group earn the same as other graduates. Still, if the tuition and other perks reflect the correct compensation for the services of student athletes, no school will offer more. Thus the existence of a rule limiting compensation is itself evidence that the value to the school of the services the players provide is greater than the amount of the scholarship.

A counterargument is that until they are eligible to be drafted by a professional club, college athletes are “not worth a single cent on the open market.” This has the problem backwards. There is no open market. Every other business can bid for the services of labor. Only by allowing college teams to do the same would we learn what the players are worth.

The NCAA has promised a 2021 vote on whether to funnel more money to players, but opposes any change that would treat players as employees. The group also insists that limiting the compensation paid to college football players increases competitive balance. Studies have found no empirical support for this proposition.

Besides, even if the wealthiest schools would indeed collect all the best players, that’s not enough reason to preserve the regressive system that the NCAA is fighting so hard to protect. Sanderson and Siegfried suggest that compensating the players at market rates would lead a significant number of schools to give up football. Perhaps only the Power 5 would be left. As a fan, I’d find that painful — but not as painful as a system in which colleges profit from the unpaid labor of students.

A majority of Black adults support paying the players.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.