The world of college sports reform can be divided into three camps. The first is the NCAA itself, which seems to want to change just enough to have everyone stop bashing it just for a little while. Then there are two opposing camps, both of which see the NCAA's centralized control of college sports as a problem, but have very different ideas about how to change things. (I call these two worldviews Team Market and Team Reform, and you can read about them in my article "How Not to Reform the NCAA.")
Dr. Donna Lopiano is a driving force behind Team Reform. Sometimes when she argues for her vision of a post-NCAA world, I wonder whether she thinks the economics rights of men's basketball and football athletes are a cause worth fighting for, or if she instead sees them as part of the problem.
As a case in point, consider Dr. Lopiano's attitude towards the newly announced NCAA rule allowing the parents of successful athletes to be paid between $2,500 and $3,000, as expressed in her new article "A National Governance Organization Should Be Better than This."
Rather than seeing the so-called "autonomy" movement as a step towards actual economic competition, where each conference would choose its own ideal payment to athletes, Dr. Lopiano decries this as "succumbing to the Big Five Conferences, ingratiating itself to the powerful football institutions who threaten to leave whenever they don't get their way."
To Lopiano, it is a "poor reason" to change the rules if the goal is simply:
...to avoid continued criticism for perpetuating a system, popularly termed 'athlete exploitation', that continues to funnel the riches of the FBS College Football Play-Off and the NCAA Basketball Final Four into the back pockets of head coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners who are receiving salaries well into the six and seven figures while severely restricting benefits to athletes.
You might think avoiding athlete exploitation would be a pretty excellent goal, but as I said, Dr. Lopiano comes at the world with very different viewpoint. Her quotation marks on "athlete exploitation" are telling. It seems she thinks it's a ruse, the kind of things you put air quotes around to show it's bogus, as if the idea that athletes might earn more in a market than they currently do is inconceivable.
It is through this Team Reform frame that Dr. Lopiano castigates the NCAA for allowing parents to get paid when their athlete children do well in football and men's and women's basketball. Her main beef is that as this rule is structured, male athletes will get more perks than female athletes.
I too have some criticism for this new initiative. My critique is that this small change in the definition of "amateurism" illustrates that the other arguments in favor of restrictions on paying athletes are faux justifications for what amounts to collusive price-fixing for the purpose of saving costs.
To me, if you are okay with giving parents money when their kids are successful at their sport, that's something akin to prize fighting not amateurism, and it is difficult to say it's okay to pay for success in some games or sports but not for others. Legal justifications for collusion need to be based on that idea that without the collusion, the whole thing disappears. Every time the NCAA opens the door a little more to compensation and nothing breaks, the harder it is to say the rest of the market being held back would be fatal to the product.
But Dr. Lopiano seems fine with price fixing—as long as it's equally terrible for everyone. She makes process arguments, saying this rule change should have gone through the normal channels. She argues as follows:
We should be upset with NCAA leaders impulsively making rules changes or exceptions in reaction to the prospect of bad press or fearing that a subset of institutions will get angry and leave the organization if their waiver request is denied. A national governance organization should be better than this.
Until that bureaucratic process can occur? Well, if it can't be done equally, then much better we follow current policy and pay nothing to anyone that withstand a day of unequal improvement:
This is a huge departure from the normal NCAA policy that treats all male and female athletes going to NCAA championships in the same manner - no expenses for parents.
Factually, I think Dr. Lopiano may be correct that if you let a football team of 115+ male athletes get a benefit and the rules only allow, at most, 15-20 female athletes to get that same benefit, you're almost certainly putting your school in a Title IX bind. However, there's a big "if" that Dr. Lopiano elides, which is whether money paid by the NCAA or the CFP counts for Title IX purposes.
Why might it be okay to give different amounts? Well, payments to parents are not financial aid to a student, which is the only spot the financial proportionality of Title IX covers, so that aspect is unaffected. However, I think it could be strongly argued (i.e., I think Lopiano is correct) that it touches on the less specific equity "laundry list," which basically says don't give something substantive to men that you don't also provide equally to women. However, it's not 100 percent cut-and-dried; since schools get away with having a better football locker room than most other sports by making sure the men's basketball and women's basketball lockers, etc., are comparable, I am not convinced this really is a Title IX legal issue. It's almost certainly true, though, that going by the spirit of Title IX, paying football athletes' parents and making it impossible under NCAA rules to match those amounts to the parents of female athletes is going to be an issue.
I know many people within the Team Reform movement are very well intentioned. I suspect I would agree with Dr. Lopiano on the benefits of improved sports funding for women. But where I take the greatest exception is the idea that in order for women to be equal, both men and women need to have their compensation suppressed. The best way to ensure that women's parents get paid when their daughters succeed is to allow all students, male and female, to get paid. Rather than insisting that zero for all is better than inequality, throw your energy into ensuring equality for all and an open door to opportunity.
The simple Team Market answer to Dr. Lopiano's concerns is to stop colluding on payments at all, but also to enforce Title IX—not through rules set in Indianapolis, but through law enforcement from Washington, D.C. Let schools pay whatever they want while insisting the laws, both antitrust and gender-equity, be enforced.
I think some of the most ardent supporters of Title IX view gender equity as a zero-sum game, with every dollar that goes to a man representing one dollar less for women. What this misses is how depressed compensation has held down payments to men and to women. As long as male athlete compensation and female athlete compensation are legally linked, the best way to raise funding for women is to end pay suppression for men; let the demand for male talent rise the pay of both genders. The economic approach that combines good law with free markets will result in in both gender and economic equity—far better than a reformist agenda that prefers a misery-loves-company equality of penury.
Andy Schwarz is an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony. Follow him on Twitter, @andyhre. Photo via Getty.