Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Aug. 4, 2021

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Jayne: NCAA’s actions unsportsmanlike

The Columbian
Published:

A Supreme Court decision last week will lead to profound changes in college sports.

But the unanimous ruling in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston still fails to address the most confounding questions: Why are some of America’s most prestigious universities de facto minor leagues for the NFL and the NBA? And why is the point guard more lauded than the Nobel laureate in the corner office?

Of course, the court wasn’t tasked with answering those questions; that is best left to sociologists and economists. Instead, the Supreme Court was asked whether the business model used by big-time college sports is constitutional.

To that, the justices left no room for debate. As Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion: “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”

In other words, the NCAA refuses to pay athletes who are the attraction for an industry that generates billions of dollars a year. At the University of Washington, for example, the athletic department generated $138 million in revenue during the last pre-pandemic school year. The football coach was paid $4.125 million by the school; his players received no salary.

To defend this practice, NCAA lawyers argued that amateurism is an integral part of big-time college sports; they were sharply rebuked.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor.”

Indeed, that labor is rewarded with college scholarships — and there is value in that. But for the most famous athletes in the most popular sports, it is silly that they should not profit when fans purchase a jersey with the athlete’s name on it.

Eventually, the decision will allow athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness, or NIL. If the quarterback is the most famous person in Pullman, he can, say, do TV ads for the local car dealer.

All of which resonates with Dan Dickau. A Prairie High School graduate, Dickau made it to the NBA by way of Gonzaga University.

“Would I have loved to have made some money on the side? Absolutely,” he said in a phone interview. “Was I a good enough player to have quietly been offered something when being recruited? Absolutely not. I think the NIL is definitely a step in the right direction. They should have the opportunity based on their ability.”

Which returns us to the larger question: Why are august institutions of higher learning the training ground for pro leagues in football and basketball? “College football and college basketball started long before professional football and basketball,” Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and longtime chronicler of college sports, told me a while back. “They were established.”

So, the system that enthralls millions of fans and generates billions of dollars is largely an accident of birth.

Baseball, on the other hand, started at the professional level during the 1870s. That is why a minor-league system is the primary training ground for future major leaguers, and it is why aspiring baseball players have an option coming out of high school: Play in college while working toward a degree, or go to the minor leagues.

College baseball, of course, does not enjoy the popularity of college football or basketball. But that popularity has been subsidized by a system that is inherently unfair to the athletes and is, we now know, unconstitutional. It is subsidized by a system that should be supplemented by minor leagues.

As Zimbalist said: “Athletes who want to go to the NFL or the NBA wouldn’t have to go to college and pretend that they’re students and go through the rigmarole of college.”

Until that happens, endless questions about compensating college athletes will continue to go in circles. And that is certain to land the NCAA in front of the Supreme Court for another tongue-lashing.

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