Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Time to Grow Up: the Business of College Sports, Men's Basketball Edition

So, Duke is the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball champion. As a Michigan State basketball fan, this was at least mildly gratifying because the Spartans final losses the past two seasons have been to the eventual champion. (MSU's final two losses this season: Wisconsin and Duke.) Hardly the same as winning the whole thing, but after a loss, one takes what one can get. 

This semester I am teaching Sports Law for the first time, and it has been an interesting and rewarding experience. As our recent guest, Marc Edelman, recently noted, there is a lot going on right now in college sports (there probably always is), with questions about paying NCAA players and players' rights to unionize, among other things, leading the way.  

I am a big fan of college sports, and I generally prefer college sports to professional sports. I don't, however, have any illusion that big-time college sports are, in any real sense, pure or amateur. (For that matter, I don't know what "pure" means, but I hear complaints that colleges sports are "no longer pure," so it appears there is some benchmark somewhere.)  College sports are a modified form of professional sports or, as the term I used to hear from time to time in other contexts, semi-pro sports.

What College Sports Are

College sports, in the simplest sense, are highly talented young people competing on behalf of educational institutions in exchange for the opportunity to pursue a mostly funded college education, if they so choose and can make it fit in with their athletic obligations.  The athletes are compensated for their efforts with opportunities that are varied and wide ranging, depending on the athlete and the institution for which they compete.  

Obviously, the experience for the high-profile college athlete -- generally football and men's and women's basketball -- is different from that of the less-watched sports, such as gymnastics, track, and golf.  But in all instances, the athletes represent their institution on and off the field, and they all have significant obligations that come along with their participation on their team. (Not all athletes have full or even partial scholarships, which can vary the obligations, though often all athletes have similar requirements.)

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Twitter Me This

I woke up this morning to a Deadspin article, Claire McCaskill Is Fighting The Wrong Battle, which takes the Senator to task for a couple of her Tweets. (E.g, "McCaskill’s tweets are stupid on a couple of levels.") I wonder if, this morning, the Senator might be sharing Tom Izzo's well documented dislike of Twitter.

Senator McCaskill's first tweet was: "Congrats to Duke, but I was rooting for team who had stars that are actually going to college & not just doing semester tryout for NBA."  

She followed up with, "I see I have stirred things up. Sorry, but I'm sad about the one & done thing. I understand why it's happening, but I don't have to like it."  And, "To be clear folks, this isn't about the kids, this is about the system. This is about the NCAA/NBA. I don't blame the very talented athletes."

The article's author doesn't think any team is worthy of preference for their practices ("No college basketball team is more virtuous than another."), and he seems to agree with the senator on the last point. He simply takes issue with her preference for Wisconsin in the first place (at least her rationale for that preference). He explains,

The entire damn thing is a sham, and the proper response is not “I recognize this, but am nonetheless going to root for Wisconsin,” but “the NCAA sucks and should be abolished.”

I agree that attaching virtue to college sports, or athletics generally, is flawed, and in this context I can agree that Wisconsin is not better simply because their players stay in school longer. Still, I am not sure one can say all programs are "equal." If there is some level of virtue in college sports, I would suggest that those who try to follow the admittedly flawed rules of the NCAA are better -- more virtuous -- than those who don't.

As for abolishing the NCAA, okay, I suppose, but that is hardly a cure all.  Should we just leave it to the professional sports leagues, like the NBA and NFL? These are hardly model institutions.  And would any new governing body for college sports act any differently? 

Waking Up to Reality

Sometimes, reform of an old system is not very appealing, but still the best option. One of the key challenges for reforming college sports is similar to a challenge faced by securities regulators and utility regulators: the existing infrastructure. That is, if we were starting from scratch, we'd probably create a different model. For example, if we move to the moon, and start a new utility infrastructure, we would almost certainly use a different model than the one set in place by Samuel Insull in the late 1800s. (At least, I  hope so.)  But that's not where we are.

Because there are investments in the current college sports system -- by colleges, by athletes, and most certainly by big businesses -- making fundamental change is not easy. The forthcoming O'Bannon decision and right-to-unionize decisions may force some evolution, though I don't expect we'll see any major changes in the near term. Frankly, I won't be shocked if we see O'Bannon settled (and the lower court decision vacated). And as for the right to unionize, no matter what happens, what it means to be an employee can often be tweaked on the margins, depending on how the decision is rendered.

The reality is, athletics can be impressive, inspiring, and motivational.  The people -- the athletes -- in these stories are real, even if the stories we want to tell about college sports are not always accurate.  I'm confident that we will figure out a way to evolve college sports to better serve the athletes who work so hard and should, in my view, have more of a right to the revenues they play such a critical part in generating. I'm also confident that the near-term solutions will be inadequate and disappointing.  Here's hoping that incremental change is better than no change at all.  


Current Affairs, Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Sports | Permalink


There is great disparity in values conveyed between the "majors" and the "mid-majors" and, as you point out, "the big two" - football and basketball.

There is also great disparity in the value of scholarships. A scholarship to Vanderbilt as compared, for instance, to Middle Tennessee State University (pedigree of degree). As someone whose teammates knew that playing at the "next level" was not a reality; I can say that several would never have been afforded the educational opportunity without the athletic path. Of those with whom I am closest, they have all reached a modicum of contemporary success.

For me, the single biggest concern is that the NCAA address the need for a reasonable stipend. My day started as 7:00 a.m. and classes had to conclude by 1:00 p.m. Then, the work began. We were regularly at athletic facilities from 1:30 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. I can relate to the player who, last year, complained about going to bed hungry (resulting in the NCAA relaxed the rules). The other fact is that a collegiate athlete simply lacks the number of hours in the day to hold a job. That is what I remember vividly.

Posted by: Tom N. | Apr 8, 2015 3:03:27 PM

Nice post, Josh. I agree with your ideas and your hope. But please don't forget women's field hockey next time you mention those "lesser" sports! :>)

Posted by: joanheminway | Apr 15, 2015 8:12:36 PM

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