May 6, 2014

What to do about College Sports?

Sports seem to hold sway over American consciousness—I don't know whether it's more accurate to say that they or warfare provide the metaphorical backdrop for our political contests. I'm troubled that sports seem to hold sway in the current debate over paying college athletes and allowing them to unionize (Frank Deford's commentaries at NPR usually get me excited—here's an example; so I was happy to see some pointed commentary at The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik.

After framing the issue the way it should be

Yet, sympathetic as these ideas seem at first look, they become dubious at a longer one. They all tend to redefine a set of students as a class of employees, ending the pretense that they are anything else, perhaps, but also pointing out why that pretense has always been such a lousy one to perpetuate. The idea of paying athletes to play begins to dissolve as the details hove into view: If you pay all athletes, women cross-country runners alongside left tackles, then no one can possibly construct a rational fee scale. If you pay only those athletes in the few men’s sports that make money, you’re accepting that those sports are essentially a stand-alone business, not to be considered in any way part of the broader mission of the university—which is what the critics of college sports say is the problem with having them in the first place. If a college drama program made a lot of money by putting on Disney-style adaptations in Broadway-size theatres, and paid its faculty directors millions of dollars a year, that might be a reason to pay the student actors, too. But it would be an even better reason not to describe it as a college drama program.

Gopnik points out a reasonable solution, I think

In college sports, there is a simpler solution. The N.F.L. and the N.B.A., which profit indecently from the free development of talent provided by colleges, need to start their own minor leagues, and the colleges should threaten non-participation in events like the draft in order to pressure them to do so. In basketball, a gifted few already move directly from high school to the pros, but the standard development of players enforces a route, however hypocritical and short-lived, through a college team. In football, prospective professional players have essentially no choice but to attend college, or feign to. Establish credible minor leagues in these sports, as already exist in hockey and baseball, and the young athletes who want to play sports for money would be free to do so, and the ones who want to get a college education first and then play sports for money later can do that, with the knowledge that they will be able to do something else if a sports career doesn’t work out.