There is nothing more fashionable these days than attacking the NCAA. Whether it is the governor of Pennsylvania suing because he did not like the NCAA sanctions in the sordid Jerry Sandusky Affair, or Bleid Sports being upset that it could not use Rupp Arena for a basketball tournament, it is open season. Case in point -- a new academic piece entitled "Revenue Shares and Monopsonistic Behavior in Intercollegiate Athletics" by Associate Professor of Economics James Monks of the University of Richmond.
The thrust of Monks' article is that "[i]ntercollegiate athletics in the United States operates as a monopsonistic cartel under the umbrella of the National Collegiate Athletics [sic] Association." Why does Dr. Monks believe this? Because the athletes in the four major professional sports get a bigger share of the revenues from their sports than college athletes do. From this "empirical observation," Monks concludes "[c]learly the monopsonistic practices of the NCAA are effective in restricting the compensation of athletes."
Really? If this is what passes for economic analysis at our universities today, then college sports are the least of our worries.
NCAA sports are amateur sports, where remuneration is limited to in-kind scholarships. It is obvious that if the NCAA were run as a professional sports league that players would get more compensation. No research required here.
Now perhaps the supposed insight is that because professional athletes get more of the revenues than NCAA athletes, to the tune of roughly 54-58 percent to 21-35 percent respectively according to Dr. Monks, it shows the NCAA is a really good monopsonist. Not so fast. What Dr. Monks notes, but fails to account for, is the fact that the four major professional sports are unionized. Unions are legal cartels designed to increase compensation for workers. Not controlling for unionization in his revenue analysis is slipshod. It tells us nothing about possible market outcomes if pay-for-play were permitted in the NCAA. Simply observing, as Dr. Monks does, that union workers make more than counterpart non-unionized amateur athletes is like saying "water is wet."
Most amazing, however, is that Dr. Monks fails to consider that the popularity of NCAA sports is based on the fact that it provides competition between amateur student-athletes. That is what makes NCAA sports so compelling. We all know that college athletes are not the best athletes -- professionals are. The best FBS football team would certainly lose to the worst NFL team. It is not the pure quality of NCAA athletics that makes it so attractive to people, it is athletic competition involving amateur student-athletes.
The rules preserving amateurism and student-athletics that the NCAA provides are the reason why collegiate sports are so popular. Far from being a rapacious monopsonist as Dr. Monks repeatedly asserts, the NCAA is a joint venture of our nation's universities and colleges that pro-competitively creates compelling athletic competitions combined with unparalleled opportunity for student-athletes.
Monks' article is symptomatic of a now pervasive view of the NCAA predicated on a presumed moral certainty that NCAA athletes in two sports (football and basketball) are exploited. For example, Taylor Branch maintains that while college athletes "are not slaves," there is "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation." To these people, professionalizing NCAA sports must be done to stop this perceived injustice. These critics, while perhaps well-intentioned, are misguided.
To be sure, there is much money swirling around NCAA football and basketball. And, NCAA efforts to preserve amateurism are often cumbersome and sometimes clumsy. But the fact that amateurism in NCAA sports is not pristine does not mean that there is exploitation or that professionalizing NCAA sports is the answer.
It is critical to remember that the NCAA model provides enormous opportunities for male and female college athletes beyond the two revenue sports. The NCAA model uses the income from the revenue sports to support the broader goal of providing the most opportunity for the most college athletes.
Rather than exploitation, the NCAA seeks - in the words of the NCAA Constitution -- "to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body." Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron might do better in a professionalized pay-for-play system, but before firing off another round of hyperbole, critics should simply think through whether that outcome is best for the vast majority of college athletes.