The latest entry in the big book of Chait explaining that the status quo in college sports isn’t really all that bad is a response to a proposal for paying college athletes laid out by the New York Times’ Joe Nocera. Chait’s strategy for poking holes in Nocera’s piece seems to be pretending that a very simple concept is actually very complicated and fraught. For example:
The closer you look at Nocera’s plan — even the vague, idealized version he presents — the more clear it becomes that he would simply worsen every existing feature of the status quo. Nocera claims that his plan would not entail a net increase in expenditures. “Is offering cash compensation really that much worse than the current system, in which universities build lavish facilities and spend absurd sums on their ‘programs’ to lure good players?” he argues. “Doesn’t it make more sense to give some of that money to the players? It would actually be less expensive.” But why would programs stop spending money on expensive facilities for their athletes? Wouldn’t they just continue to offer lavish facilities on top of cash payments?
I’m not really sure what to do with that couplet of questions, which are presented as some sort of finishing move. But why would programs stop spending money on expensive facilities for their athletes? Well, the idea is that they would be spending that money on paying athletes, and not on giant stickers. Wouldn’t they just continue to offer lavish facilities on top of cash payments? Maybe so! As long as the athletes are getting paid, who gives a shit?
Likewise, Nocera proposes to trim football scholarships from the current 85 to 60, which is more in line with an NFL roster. Of course, the NFL maintains its slimmer rosters because it can cut any player the moment their body is unable to perform as well as the available replacement. Which is to say, Nocera’s plan is almost explicitly to accelerate the insidious trend of kicking nonperforming players to the curb.
Let’s see if we can rewrite that last sentence in way that doesn’t make it read like it was written by a man who also wonders why they don’t just make the whole damn plane out of the black box. Here we go: “Which is to say, Nocera’s plan is almost explicitly to accelerate the insidious trend of kicking nonperforming players—who have been financially compensated for their labor—to the curb.” What’s better, being cut from the Alabama football team because you tore your ACL and having nothing to show for it, or getting “kicked to the curb” with some money in your pocket?
If it feels like Chait’s starting to lose the thread here, that’s because he is. When you’ve spent years twisting logic in search of complex rejoinders to a simple concept, you will eventually end up tangled in a ball of yarn. The fact is that there’s nothing about the argument in favor of paying college athletes that requires an increasingly tortured series of rebuttals to be leveled against it. Here, via the Wall Street Journal, is how simple this is:
Nike Inc. has agreed to a $252 million deal with Ohio State University to extend its existing sponsorship by 15 years, escalating an arms race among sportswear makers and top sports schools.
Ohio State will receive $112 million in product from Nike and at least $103 million in cash, including royalty income, according to terms of the contract reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Nike is essentially dropping a suitcase full of $103 million in cash on Ohio State’s doorstep, and yet none of that money is going to athletes who generate it in the form of cash payments. You either believe that’s insanely stupid, or you don’t. The problem with Chait is that he falls into the latter category, but doesn’t even have the gumption to just come out and say, “Yeah, I’m in favor of impossibly powerful institutions exploiting unpaid workers.” Instead, he insists on presenting himself as the only sane guy in the room. He’ll go on disingenuously fussing over whether the women’s badminton team should also be collecting checks, and pretending like all of these exact qualms haven’t been definitively knocked down by economists who actually know what they are talking about.
All the handwaving, it seems, is supposed to give Chait the look of a wise man willing to buck the conventional wisdom and step back and consider the big picture. The picture is in fact very small, though, and the conventional wisdom that the NCAA is a racket that exists to divert money from people who earn it toward rich old people is right. Only a stooge who is hell-bent on convincing himself that he’s something more noble will tell you otherwise.