March Madness is the time of year when the country’s most talented college basketball players have a chance to make a name for themselves, get noticed by NBA recruiters and bring home the national championship for their colleges. In the college basketball market — a multimillion dollar industry — NCAA schools make loads of profit off ticket sales, merchandise and television rights. And as they pocket the cash, the yearly question arises: Do the college players, the pawns of the industry, deserve to be paid?
There is certainly a strong case for why they should be compensated for playing college ball. USC, among other schools, was sanctioned by the NCAA for paying at least $2,000 to two of its players’ families. Based on the current rules, this is a violation. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. Schools should not be forced to pay their college athletes, but they also should not be penalized for choosing to do so.
While many support the compensation of college athletes, there is substantial division regarding whether these players should have the right to form labor unions. Students should negotiate their packages independently. It’s a simple free-market example: the best players will choose to go to the schools that offer them the best deal, and students will have the power to choose which school and which package works best for them based on their different needs.
All student-athletes have different, specific goals and expectations from prospective schools. Due to such variations among players, it is clear that unionizing college athletes would be inefficient. A union is necessary to organize a collective bargaining system that protects the rights and interests of a like-minded group. But among college athletes, there is no like-minded group. There are inherent differences in mindset among college athletes, and organizing them into one group would be a mistake.
The root of the issue lies in the title “student-athlete.” This label implies that all players are students first, primarily interested in their schools’ academic services such as obtaining a degree. It implies that they are only secondarily interested in being athletes. While this may be true for some athletes — especially those who play in lower division college sports or players who know they are not skilled enough to make a career in playing professional sports — it most certainly is not true for the stars of nationally ranked teams.
In fact, the vast majority of college athletes who are drafted to the NBA or NFL do not complete their undergraduate degrees. They leave school early and never look back. For true athletic stars, college classes are a hindrance rather than an opportunity for education. If the NCAA allowed it, they would go straight into the professional leagues and dismiss college altogether.
That said, the title “student-athlete” and the academic tuition scholarship that comes along with it are ideal for other athletes. These athletes do not see college classes as a hindrance for their athletic careers because they know they will not play their sport professionally. These student-athletes are more interested in the “student” aspect, and their objectives are to earn degrees. They use their sport as a marketable tool for admission, and taking away these students’ academic scholarship and replacing it with compensation would not benefit them.
Although the NCAA takes a similar position regarding the unionization of college athletes, it does so for the wrong reasons. The NCAA states that it does not employ athletes because students attend college first and foremost for an education and participation in college athletics is voluntary. Both of these reasons are not necessarily true.
First, participation in college sports is not exactly voluntary. The NBA struck a deal with the NCAA to make sure that players are only eligible to play professional basketball at the age of 19, at least one year into college. To be eligible for the NFL, a player must be out of high school for at least three years. This is not true for other professional sports. In tennis, for example, a player can sign a professional contract at 13.
Additionally, we know the NCAA does not employ its athletes, but perhaps it should. Since participation in college sports is mandatory for athletes of certain sports before they sign professional contracts, their primary purpose of attending college is to pass the time before they go pro.
Employees deserve to be justly compensated for the money they generate their employers. But players deserve to decide if they want to be employed as athletes or if they want to be enrolled as students. If both of these groups with different interests join together in forming a union, it would be March every month of the year: pure madness.