Ain’t Paid Nobody: Preamble, The Economics of Pay for Play

[Welcome to my off-season project! I’ll give you a moment to absorb the dour reminder that the college football season is over and we have nothing comparable to fill our time until the season rolls back ’round in the fall. 

Ok, enough moping! This offseason I am writing this multi-part investigation of the economics of paying college players. I intend to explore the issue from the underlying economics of the college football business to the primary arguments for and against the adoption of a salary for college athletes. I’m planning on this to be large in scope and reach, and while it will be a primarily economic pursuit, we will also look at the other dimensions of it

I intend for this to be cerebral, but accessible. Moreover, I have no idea where this is going to lead or whether it will support my current held belief that players should not be paid or whether it will change my mind. Either way, my goal is to learn more through close examination than what I know from the survey of information available. 

Fair warning: I will attempt to be cold and pragmatic. I intend to address the emotional arguments on their merits, not on their ability to spur empathy. I’m not sure how many modules this will amount to, but my aim is to keep writing until it’s finished. I will make every effort to stay earnest and keep it interesting. 

Depending on the shape this takes, I may release an accompanying podcast, but for now we are focusing on the written series. -Gavin]

What is it about college sports that draws us in? Ask any college sports fan and they’ll invariably tell you it’s either the passion, the school pride, the heart, etc. Ultimately, every answer we get can be traced back to one seminal element: the amateurism of college athletics. 

The appeal of this is very basic. Whether by geographical affiliation, degree loyalty, or legacy, we identify with schools and their programs. In many ways, we absorb them into ourselves. We make them personal. This is not unlike rabid NFL fans, sure. But, the NFL players are paid millions of dollars, and, because it’s a business, many of those players’ loyalties are for sale. We also identify with the inherent fallibility of collegiate athletics. In the NFL, all the players are so good–yes, even the Jaguars and Browns players–that the resulting product has a detached sterility to it not present in college. The ruthless efficiency is wonderful for fans of these teams (look no further than the Patriots with Brady or the Packers with Rodgers for proof). However, to the unbiased observer, though the level of skill is higher, emotionally it simply does not seem the same. 

The question becomes, then, how much are we perverting the word ‘amateur’ when talking about college football players? This logically follows into questioning whether they’re amateurs at all and whether they should be paid more than the benefits currently afforded to them. 

The issue here does not break across typical partisan lines. So, while what follows is a brief synopsis using the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ I implore the reader to consider these in terms of an economic framework. There are plenty of republicans who espouse liberality in economics and plenty of democrats who fall in line with the classical economists. I can assure you, I have no intention of muddying the political and social with sports. Plenty of writers do, go read their work. 

As for the economics of playing players, the following is my classification of the primary ideologies:

The more liberal bent of writers would have you believe that the current structure is tantamount to modern-day slavery, with many imbuing their analysis with a breathless accusation of racial oppression. This is a fine opinion to drive clicks and vitality, but this position lends itself to being the last word in a conversation that’s just beginning. It has no economic utility, and will be ignored for the majority of this series. 

The conservatives are quite the opposite in that they believe that the non-monetary value gained by the student-athletes is the final word. In fact, almost all people who espouse this view will seek to shut down the discussion with the straw man fallacy anytime it arises. This is equally unproductive, and also lacks economic utility. 

I can promise my objectivity here. At the outset, I believe that college athletics are in no-man’s-land on this issue, and lingering at the present position will lead to economic liberality winning out, because, as mentioned, traditionalists are unwilling to pull a chair up to the table to have a dialog. 

Firm conclusions on these matters are frequently elusive. All I can promise is my earnest effort to gain an expanded grasp on the economics of paying players. After this write up, I plan on canning a few of these so that I can stick to a regular release schedule. Look for more very soon!

Because, at time of writing, we still Ain’t Paid Nobody. 

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