America’s Un-Professional Sports League

Many have called it a quintessential example of the true potential of the American experiment.  A testament to the virtues and benefits of our American system that allows for creation out of nothingness; the artistry that encompasses the blank canvass of our nation.  Across the United States exists a multitude of institutions that represent a key block to our macroeconomic prosperity.  While individually unique in their founding, history, self-image, and specific promotion, they are intertwined by what they represent: a common culture that is deeply woven into our greater cultural consciousness.

This culture has become ever more important and apparent in the Southern states, while other parts of the nation are also sympathetic to its practice.  While most are small and limited in their exposure, there are a select few large enough to be self-sustaining mini-social environments.  For these select few, they belong in a higher league of competition while representing the some of the most publically affiliated names in the country.  They are institutions unto themselves.  Fortunately, they are large enough to sustain enough of an internal population to produce a significant amount of their particular product.  Of course, an inherent part of this culture is the acceptance that those individuals committed to producing this product are not compensated with any monetary or financial benefits.  Instead, their basic life necessities, such as room and board, and the opportunity for a better life that otherwise would not have been available to them in their places of origin are collectively believed to be more than enough compensation.  But there is growing evidence that major and common aspects of these laborers’ work pose a serious threat to their long term health.  Of course, since this particular labor force is technically not a professional, but an amateur group, the otherwise widely accepted norms associated with fair compensation for the risk attributed to their work are forgone.  And since most of these individuals are not fully integrated participants in the greater political process, their ability to address their concerns to a wider audience is limited from the get go.

Meanwhile, the evolution of our free market society has fortunately produced a level of professional organization to produce the same product but with full respect for the labor laws, practices, and norms that are commonly afforded to most citizens of our land.  Yes, these individuals are susceptible to the same medical harms as their “amateur” cousins, but they are given the choice to accept these risks knowing they are receiving a level of compensation in return.  It is no coincidence that the concentration of these professional outfits is in the Northern segment of our country where the overall public support and zealously for the “amateur” practice to this approach is considerably less, and even in some parts concerned with the malpractice at work.

While the abolition of this de facto Southern practice is not a foregone solution, it has been gaining some support amongst the greater public.  Yes, the benefits and fruits of their amateur labor are shared by the people of this nation with great delight and fanfare.  Yes, we have accepted that the limited compensation these laborers receive is fair enough.  But in a time when labor relations have become such a national issue, as seen in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, why is a wide acceptance of this system of unfair compensation in light of the growing awareness of the risks associated with this line of profession?  But maybe two parts of that last sentence are exactly what the problem at hand is.  Maybe we don’t want to think about the medical concerns of these young individuals when we see them working so diligently hard across the field for our collective benefit.  Maybe we still don’t think of this work as a profession.  And maybe the Northern style of organization that have implemented their practice of labor with due compensation are so reliant on the product of this Southern practice that they are willing to accept the continuation of this system for their benefit.  What is most disturbing is that these amateur institutions continue to shroud their way of business as just another aspect of their culture.  That abolition of this system is not economic or business related, but would destroy a deeper cultural institution and connection that is shared amongst those associated with the institution.  In reality, we should have asked why these institutions were responsible for this product and labor in the first place when really the same economic activity in most of the world is handled with a deeply professional outlook.  Even in Old Europe, the separation between these institutions and this particular activity is unquestionable.  But perhaps the American experiment was the optimum testing ground for such a radical endeavor.  Could this kind of labor-production succeed?

In my opinion, the answer is not “no”.  The product in itself is not a natural “bad”.  It should still be produced, although its quality is objectively less than its Northern brand.  It is more the practice that is slowly becoming more abhorrent.  The individual laborers themselves cannot be blamed for their accomplice in this practice.  Instead, if any fingers are to be pointed, it should be at the institutions and ultimately us.  The social acceptance that this amateur model is actually amateur is no longer a valid reality.

The NCAA, especially in the production of football and to a less, but near, extent basketball, is a business institution whose priority is not academic enrichment but for-profit gain.  And rightfully so.  I am a firm believer in where a market exists, one can meet to provide ample and efficient provision of that particular product to said market.  If benefits are to be made, let them be reaped.  While labor relations in the NFL and all professional sports leagues, America and abroad, have codified a stable management-worker revenue relationship, the NCAA has created a system that is not only completely counter to this relationship, but widely accepted by a culture that would otherwise find such practice in any other economic activity unconstitutional and thereby counter to our cultural norms.  The NCAA, the representative body of a cadre of academic institutions in this country, is finding it increasingly difficult to justify exposing hundreds of young Americans to an ever more apparent medical risk without due compensation.  But really, can we blame them?  In order to find market efficiency for maximum profit margins, labor is almost always the largest cost to any economic activity.  Yet, the NCAA found a way to bypass this burden to profit and create a system where financial gain is limited to a select few.  Of course, the response could be that this financial gain is dutifully returned to the universities that sponsor this activity and labor, but this does not address the issue of an inconsistent balance between management-labor revenue sharing.

Let’s look back at that Northern/Professional approach to the same economic activity.  In reality, the risks are the same, if not heightened, in this realm.  However, NFL players are seen as a professional labor force and therein entitled to the same risk-benefit apparatus that drives most professions in the United States.  While both NCAA and NFL players have the choice to play the sport and can walk away from the risk involved, the difference is that NFL players are compensated fairly for the risk that potential lies ahead.  This system could not be more capitalist in nature given its efficient risk-reward structure.  What runs counter to our American view of free market economics is the thorough disproportion in the risk-reward structure of NCAA compensation.

What is even worse is that this imbalance is not fully the fault of the NCAA or universities.  Like most things in a collective nation or country, the norms and values that we attribute to any aspect of our society are a strong determinant in the models and practices of our economic activities.  While universities see NCAA football and basketball as modes for profit and financial gain, they only do so and succeed at practicing this particular disproportionate risk-reward structure because we as a society have accepted it.  We consign the university environment to that of an academic experience where the priority is and will always be the enrichment of the young student’s maturity.  Yet college sports are a business and while this in it of itself is a perfectly acceptable practice, it has nothing to do with the primary purpose of a university.  The fact that these two activities were joined together during the 19th century is the only connection they have.   Yet education in the United States has been seen as public good, while sports an obvious private endeavor.  Unfortunately, time has solidified a culture that accepts sports as an important, if not essential, aspect of the collegiate experience (which on paper is one of educational and thus public purpose).  I personally do not want to get rid of this practice, but if we are to maintain its existence we must approach the system of higher education in this country not as a public endowment but as wholly private activity like anything else in our economy.  And therein rests my concern of the monumental task that universities face with producing both a public good (education) and a private good (sports) with a non-profit mentality.  Either we accept a significant economic inefficiency with this faulty relationship or approach higher education as a private good.

During a recent gathering with fellow sports zealots, the topic of NCAA basketball came up.  While the original discussion weighed in on the merits of the NCAA basketball tournament being an objective determinant for the “best” college basketball team in the nation, one particular comment got me thinking.  While my concept of a diminished, albeit higher quality, grouping of universities was not fully accepted, a response was that such a collegiate sports environment would just be “another professional league”.  To which my thinking response was, well true we wouldn’t want that, because obviously we want to maintain the amateurism that collegiate sports represent.  But thinking about it further, it is quite clear that college sports is no longer a practice in amateurism, given the primary goal of maximizing profit and financial gain, and is definitely not an aspect of the university academic experience.  So then, if NCAA football and basketball weren’t amateur yet weren’t professional, then what is it?  I think we are just lying to ourselves when we attempt to see college sports as an expression of amateurism.  It is a professional sports league that just so happens not to play (or have to play) by the commonly accepted economic norms that most professions attest to in this country.  And while my insinuation that NCAA football is on par with the institution of slavery in this nation was a trite attempt with supreme hyperbole, there’s no hiding the similarities that do exist.  Even South Park gets it.

So when I ask myself “What is the purpose of college sports?” I obviously cannot turn to words like “academics” or “amateurism”.  Words like “entertainment”, “TV revenue” and “compensation” are really more attributable for what this institution really is.  So thinking back on topics like what should a March Madness or BCS Bowl Series look like, the conversation is really a moot point unless we fully come to terms with what NCAA sports means.  If it is another aspect of the educational, public experience, then by all means we should maximize the opportunity and all athletes, from schools big and small, should have a chance at tournament and bowl glory.  But if we appreciate college sports for what they are, a for-profit business with an outdated labor model, then it should be at the whim of economic efficiency.  March Madness and the BCS should be available to only those who will provide the maximum profit.  Because when you think about it, while college and its sports might be a proud American pastime, nothing is more Red, White and Blue than cold hard cash.

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