The End of Amateurism Is Not the End of Competitive College Sports

College sports already are imbalanced. And they’re doing just fine.

Actually, college sports aren’t merely imbalanced. They’re practically rigged. Occasional upsets aside, big schools dominate the highest levels of competition. College football hasn’t had a mid-major national champion since Brigham Young University in 1984, while in men’s basketball, more than half of the Final Four appearances between 1979 and 2011 were made by just 12 power conference schools. The disparity is due to talent differences, which mostly come from recruiting differences. In 2011, economist Andy Schwarz examined the school choices of the top 100 high school football prospects over a 10-year span. Of 1,000 total players, 993 went to power conference programs—and of the seven remaining, four were Mormons who attended BYU and one was an Ohio State University recruit who had a scholarship offer rescinded because of (later disproven) criminal charges.

Of course, none of this is surprising. Anyone who follows campus sports knows that the University of Kentucky does not compete with Ball State University for the same basketball players, anymore than Ohio State competes with the University of Akron for the same football players. To the contrary, Kentucky and Ohio State compete for one level of athlete, while Akron and Ball State compete for another, lower level. Richer schools have more to offer, like super-swank basketball dorms. Poorer schools make do, and sometimes make good with undervalued prep players who mature into college stars. As NCAA president Mark Emmert once said, “I don’t think any of the Butler kids were recruited by, you know, Kansas.” Why does that matter? Because it won’t change, regardless of players being allowed to be paid. The schools with the most money will still fight over five-star prospects; everyone else will continue squabble over the leftovers.

An old joke holds that if you encounter a hungry bear while hiking, you don’t need to run faster than the bear in order to survive. You just need to run faster than the person next to you. The same holds true for college sports sans amateurism. To land the nation’s No. 1 high-school linebacker in a truly free market for talent, Alabama (2013 athletic department revenues: $144 million) may have to spend quite a bit of money to outbid wealthy rivals like LSU ($117 million) and UCLA ($84 million). But that doesn’t mean Boise State will have to break the bank to land the country’s 250th-best prep linebacker—not if the Broncos ($43 million) are simply trying to outrun Fresno State ($34 million). Worrying that financial competition between Kentucky and Ohio State will force cash-strapped Gonzaga University to abandon hoops is like worrying that a future arms race between the United States and China will force Canada to disband its military.

It’s possible, sure. But not very likely. Especially not when successful mid-major football and men's basketball teams are tremendous university marketing tools, and while a proliferation of sports networks with programming time to fill and cable subscriber cash to pocket means even the decidedly unglamorous Mid-American Conference can sign a rights deal with ESPN worth more than $1 million annually.

(If anything, Schwarz points out, ending amateurism could actually lead to greater competitive balance. Under current rules, Ball State will never beat out Kentucky for a basketball prospect—but if the school’s boosters could pool their cash and target, say, Kentucky’s fifth-most-coveted prep player, they might be able to win a few recruiting battles, and over time construct a more talented roster.)

In her 99-page O’Bannon ruling, Wilken found that “the NCAA’s current restrictions on student-athlete compensation do not promote competitive balance.” As supporting evidence, she cited near-universal consensus among academics and economists who have studied the issue, some of them for decades. Given that’s the case, why do so many college sports officials—some of whom work at the same universities as said academics—insist otherwise? Why do so many people who work around healthy competition fear the same, at least when it comes to player compensation?

Like any type of salary cap or cartel restraint, amateurism is great for the people who get to enforce it—provided they don’t have to abide by it themselves. In major college sports, the money keeps increasing. March Madness nets the NCAA about $774 million annually. ESPN reportedly will spend approximately $5.64 billion over the next 12 years to broadcast the new college football playoff. All that cash has to go somewhere, and when a powerhouse like the University of Texas can’t directly buy the services of the premier high school players, it’s liable to spurge on the next best thing: According to a new book by ESPN radio host Paul Finebaum, the school recently considered offering Saban, an unparalleled recruiter, a salary package worth $100 million.

Meanwhile, Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin is set to earn only—ahem—$1 million this season. Is anyone in college sports gnashing their teeth that big schools can—and do—spend more on coaches then smaller ones?

“Are we at all worried that Fresno State isn’t able to outcompete Stanford for the best engineers?” Schwarz says. “Does Fresno State quit offering engineering classes just because it produces less prestigious engineering graduates?

"[Right] now, Utah State plays maybe two or three other power schools, and then nine to 10 schools with Utah State-like budgets. In the future Utah State may end up playing only one power school and then 11 schools with Utah State-like budgets. Demand for Utah State football isn't going to evaporate because of that change. What else in Logan, Utah is as exciting as attending Aggies’ football games in person? What else does someone who currently chooses to sit on a couch for three and a half hours watching Utah State do instead?”

In 1984, Oklahoma and the University of Georgia sued the NCAA over its then-unilateral control of televised college football, which fixed the price of game broadcasts and placed a cap on the total number of televised games. The schools argued that association’s restraints were bad for the sport and consumers alike, producing less choice and output. Meanwhile, the NCAA maintained that its monopoly was necessary to preserve competitive balance—that without it, smaller schools would be left behind. Sound familiar? The case went to the Supreme Court. The association lost.

Twenty-three years later, Boise State defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, pulling off one of the most thrilling upsets in college football history. So much for doomsday.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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