Should College Basketball Players Get Paid?

The University of Kentucky basketball team, which will play for the national title Monday night, has become a de facto appendage of the NBA. Coach John Calipari recruits players who plan to turn pro a year or two after graduating from high school and makes no pretense of expecting them to graduate from college.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times, contemplating prospects such as this, says it's time to just make it official: Let's call college basketball (and football) players pros and use some of the revenue from TV rights and merchandise licensing to pay them real salaries.

The most appealing thing about this idea is what it would put an end to: the spectacle of big-time college coaches making millions of dollars a year on the backs of players who don't get a piece of the action, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and won't ever see the promised land of an NBA career. There's also something to be said for admitting that a vast commercial enterprise is a vast commercial enterprise.

But wouldn't honesty about the commercial enterprise cut into the commerce? Isn't part of the appeal of NCAA sports to TV viewers the perception of a kind of purity--the perception that these guys really are playing for the love of the game? And doesn't the student body's enthusiasm (which itself makes the sport more appealing to TV viewers) depend on there being some not-entirely-tenuous sense in which these players are part of the student body? Could you sustain that sense of connection if the star hoops player was pulling down $500,000 per year, living in an off-campus penthouse, and driving to practice in a BMW?

Nocera would make that last scenario uncommon by establishing both a minimum salary ($25,000) and a team salary cap ($650,000 for 13 basketball players, $3 million for 60 football players). If you do the math, you'll see that there wouldn't be huge amounts of money left for superstars.

But I don't see the logic of drawing the line there. I mean, so long as the income of players is artificially constrained by Nocera's rules, why can't they make the argument that Nocera says applies to their current situation--that they're not being given their fair share of the revenue generated by their talents?

To put it another way: Players are already getting tens of thousands of dollars worth of room and board and other services. Nocera considers this level of compensation to be tantamount to exploitation. OK, but how does another $25,000 or $50,000 get you magically past the exploitation point in cases where a player is contributing way more than that to the commercial value of the school's athletic program?

And another question: Why enforce a $25,000 minimum for even marginal players at schools that make little or no money off their basketball program to begin with? Nocera says this miminum salary could have the virtue of forcing "smaller schools to rethink their commitment to big-time athletics." Um, what if they don't want to rethink that commitment and don't like the idea of being, in effect, fined for not rethinking it?

The heart of Nocera's indictment of the NCAA is that by banning salaries for players it keeps market forces from doing their magic and appropriately compensating workers for value added. But the truth is that if you follow that logic to its conclusion, and give market forces free play, you'll wind up with a system where a few college players are making a ton of money and many are making little or none.

Maybe this prospect offends Nocera's sensibilities. In any event, he sidesteps it by positing artificial constraints on the market that have dubious side effects such as penalizing colleges that aren't maniacally devoted to sports but would still like to participate. So it isn't entirely clear (to me, at least) that his constraints are, on the one hand, better than the current constraints and, on the other, better than no constraints at all.

In any event, it would be naïve to expect that, once we unleash market forces, they'll wind up being regulated in accordance with Nocera's preferences. If we're going to step onto a slippery slope--and there may indeed be a case for doing that here--let's acknowledge its slipperiness.