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Capitalism, Socialism and the NCAA

The recent corruption scandal involving unpaid athletes highlights the underlying problem.

Brian Mark Weber · Oct. 6, 2017

The NCAA states on its website that its purpose is “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Who could argue with a mission statement like that? The problem, of course, is that everyone knows it’s a farce, but few seem to want to do anything about it.

Education is, unfortunately, the last thing on the minds of too many NCAA officials, coaches and players. What they do have on their minds is winning games, which brings not only prestige but huge sums of money to the big schools. Whether their players get an education is often secondary to the NCAA’s bigwigs. In the process, the association is raking in big bucks and wielding absolute power over the very athletes the fans are paying to see.

In 2010, the NCAA inked a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS/Turner Broadcasting. It’s no wonder that the NCAA isn’t rushing to shake things up. No, the power brokers in the NCAA’s front offices aren’t pocketing all this money, but neither are the players who are responsible for generating it.

Where things get shaky is within the elite programs, where winning begets big bucks. And the only way to win is to bring in the most talented players. And since schools can’t pay their athletes, some programs resort to shady tactics to attract these star players.

You’re right if you think this has been going on for a long time, but you’re mistaken if you think no one is paying attention. Just last week, the Justice Department announced an indictment of 10 people, including four assistant basketball coaches, in a bribery scheme.

According to Ilya Shapiro, “Here’s what allegedly happened: An executive at sportswear manufacturer Adidas named James Gatto funneled significant sums of money to high school basketball players who then committed to Louisville. A Louisville assistant coach apparently knew about this, so he was fired, then [Louisville Head Coach Rick] Pitino and the athletic director Tom Jurich were placed on administrative leave (a way-station before firing).”

Shapiro adds, “Separately, assistant coaches at three other schools — Arizona, Oklahoma State, and University of Southern California — took cash payments to steer elite players towards certain agents and financial advisers. Then Auburn University associate head coach and former NBA rookie of the year Chuck Person and a clothing executive were charged with conspiring to direct players to use a particular clothing line.”

Mark Titus of The Ringer writes, “Arrests were made. Fancy charts were created. A press conference at a U.S. Attorney’s Office was held. Essentially, the FBI revealed it used wiretaps, undercover agents, informants, and all sorts of other resources to discover a mind-blowing story that nobody saw coming: As it turns out, college sports aren’t the bastion of amateurism and purity that they’re made out to be.”

From a free-enterprise perspective, there’s something wrong with this picture, and the NCAA is to blame for every part of it. The organization created a culture that places coaches and players in a compromising position in order to compete. Rather than recognizing the growing problem of bribery and changing the system, the NCAA hoped it could get away with it. And for a long time, it has.

The young athletes who bring money into college sports ought to share in the profits. In fact, it’s rather surprising that so many athletes are willing to give up their souls just for the privilege of playing college ball, but in many cases there are no other options.

But until the system changes, college athletes will have their hands tied. Sure, they might receive room and board for their efforts. Otherwise, they’re owned by the NCAA. This isn’t so much about feeling sorry for the athletes as it is about removing the dark, seedy underworld of college sports and preventing athletes and coaches from being tempted to accept bribes.

More than ever, coaches are now on the government’s radar. This was made clear by the FBI’s William Sweeney who stated, “Today’s arrests should serve as a warning … [that] we have your playbook.” In the short term, the extent of the current investigation may lead only to minor reforms in recruiting and might reduce the amount of money changing hands at the big schools. Hopefully, it will lead to more systemic reforms.

David French writes in National Review, “There are two ways to make the NCAA more honest. You can do what the FBI is doing now and use the power of federal law enforcement to help sustain NCAA socialism, or you can embrace the free market, liberate players, and let them earn a fair wage for the labor they give their schools.”

Clearly, it’s time to shine the light of capitalism into the shady socialist back rooms of college sports. Doing so would benefit everyone — except those who favor the status quo of an all-powerful NCAA. Top-tier athletes would be free to take any legitimate, free-market offers they deserve, and the spirit of competition would be enhanced. And the old adage, “let the coaches coach and the players play” would be restored.

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