College cartel exploits football players’ talent

Published in The News Tribune January 7, 2011

Husky fans finally have something to cheer about. The Dawgs not only won a spot in a bowl game, they even won the game!  Indeed, college football’s “post season” treated Pac-10 teams well financially; together they split over $38 million in bowl revenue.    All told, 35 bowl games played over three jam-packed weeks allowed athletic programs around the country to rake in over $250 million. 

With this as backdrop, let’s turn now to a scandal that has rocked the college football scene this year.  If you haven’t followed it, the scandal is this:  Five Ohio State football players were caught selling gold pants, championship rings, and other memorabilia given to them for playing football.


Clearly this behavior is disturbing and deserving of swift and severe sanctions.  Happily such occurred:  Each player will be benched five games next season and each returned the several thousands of dollars they gained from their profiteering.   To not unduly penalize the entire team, the NCAA allowed the players to participate in this week’s Sugar Bowl — with its payout of $36 million.  Ohio’s coach (who incidentally pulls in $3.5 million in salary) criticized his players for not paying closer attention to the “sensor within us” that keeps us on the high ground.


Presumably Coach Tressel was listening to that sensor when he extracted from each of the five players a promise to remain a Buckeye next season rather than jump to the NFL; without this promise Tressel would have kept the player from playing in the Sugar Bowl. 


If all of this sounds rather crazy, it should.  Imagine your employer gave you a pair of gold pants – OK, say a Starbucks card – in recognition for your service.   Would you ever imagine you’d face sanctions for selling that card to a friend because you needed something more than a macchiato?  Or that you’d be threatened if you dared to consider a better job opportunity? 


By all accounts, the athletes wanted to sell their gifts to raise money to help their families.  You can’t blame them for wanting something like cash with a little more tangible value.   After all, what does someone do with gold pants?   Frame them?  Stuff them and mount them above a fireplace?


How does one explain this unusual power that teams have over their players?  Unlike your employer, college football teams have banded together via an association called the NCAA.  This association has deemed that college athletes are amateurs, and thus cannot receive compensation.   Notice that the authority behind this edict is the colleges and universities themselves – the very ones who gain millions of dollars from agreeing among themselves not to pay their players.


Let’s now retell the story.  Colleges sponsor wildly popular entertainment extravaganzas called college football.  These football games bring in over $2.5 billion/year to schools.  Given the very large financial stakes in winning games, colleges naturally want desperately to attract and retain top players.  But colleges contractually agree with one another through their cartel–the NCAA– to not pay their players.  They then pay the NCAA to monitor each other and their players to make sure nobody cheats on this agreement.  While players had no role in the establishment of this arrangement, they are still fined if they somehow find a way to do what everyone else around them is doing, namely cash in on their talent.


Aside from being crazy, the story as it is retold could well be illegal.  Federal laws prohibit businesses from creating organizations such as the NCAA, because such forms of collusion give businesses an unfair advantage over their workers and consumers.   This advantage is apparent when we see how NCAA rules leave players with virtually no bargaining power over how the billions of dollars they generate is spread.  Being fined for selling rings and pants is symptomatic of how little power players have. 


That sensor within all of us – fans, coaches, athletic directors and college administrators alike – should tell us that despite the thrill of the game, things are amiss in college football as it is played off the football field.