I do not come from a sports family, but it’s impossible to live in rural Wisconsin and not be affected by sports teams. So last night we watched Wisconsin play Kentucky in the semi-finals.

Well, we sort of watched it. The game was only on cable, which we don’t have, and neither does anyone who lives near us. We tried to do a a bunch of things in order to be able to stream the game but streaming video is something for city people I think – Internet speeds in rural America are second rate, at best. And I can’t help thinking of the irony that both Kentucky and Wisconsin are largely rural states, full of people who could not watch the game.

It’s hard for me to get excited about basketball as a sport, but I do like the politics. Kentucky is a team that recruits the top high school players from across the country. Those players could go straight to the NBA – and get paid – but instead the NBA forces them to play for free in the NCAA and then go to the NBA.  That works out great for the NBA because the kids would need a lot of training that the university system does at no cost to the NBA. And the university gets players working for free for a year.

In case you had doubts about how much money everyone’s making from that free labor, 80,000 people bought $250 tickets to watch the game in Dallas last night.

Schools would say that in exchange for playing, the students get an education. This is not true of Kentucky players, who have no pretense of staying more than one year in college. The Wisconsin players will play for four years. (Not because Wisconsin is dedicated to educating basketball players, but because coach Bo Ryan doesn’t like coaching players who are used to being stars. He likes to recruit and mold players over four years to play the way he prefers.)

But the National Labor Relations Board just ruled that in fact, the four-year education that college athletes get is not as valuable as the time they spend playing their sport. The Northwestern football team just won the right to unionize, and you can bet that those players, who lose a lot because they are academically top-tier, will give unionization a shot.

Washington Post concludes that this will open “a Pandora’s box” and the Salt Lake Tribune writes, “Man oh man, just think of the unintended or unimaginable consequences.”

The unintended consequence is that the National Labor Relations Board just determined that a four-year college degree at an academically top-ranked school (which Northwestern is) is not worth as much over a lifetime as what a third-string football player contributes over the course of four years.

As far as I can tell, this is the first legal example that defines the worthlessness of a college education.

The Northwestern ruling is likely to be the beginning of a domino effect where the economics and ethics of higher education change in a big way. Thank goodness.

37 replies
  1. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I used to teach at a large public University, and I had some scholarship basketball players in my classes. I felt terrible for them, because they were so obviously out of place, and their place was insecure. Many of them were intelligent and hard-working, but all of them were exhausted walking into class and all of them had intensive tutoring just to make a passing grade in a relatively easy course.

    The ruling is a recognition that athletic scholarship students really are employees first and foremost and students second. The needs of their “job” come first, before the academics. From what I’ve seen, this is perfectly accurate.

    Many of them get college degrees, but they’re by and large not the sort of college degrees that count for much. You won’t see too many basketball workers majoring in biomedical engineering. The athletes cluster in majors like communications or general studies or sociology. But even those stupid degrees might still save your resume from the first cut someday.

    For the athletes who washed out of big league play (most of them), it is better than nothing, if they get that far. Finishing a degree at all isn’t assured. Male NCAA basketball players are finally graduating about 2/3 overall, though as low as 8% at some schools.

    These guys get used. Few of them benefit, and none so much as the athletic program does (NB: the school itself doesn’t really benefit). The labor ruling is so they can at least advocate for better treatment before they’re washed out.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I watched this a few weeks ago on HBO sports, Bernie Goldberg’s report reveals what we already know and would complement PT’s post perfectly.

      Here is a tease for it: The segment, reported by Bernard Goldberg and produced by Josh Fine, looks at how lower admission standards, coupled with higher graduation requirements, have required many top schools to commit to learning specialists to ensure student athletes can keep up. Goldberg interviews Mary Willingham, a UNC whistle-blower who formerly worked with athletes. Willingham has claimed to have data showing that 60 percent of 183 athletes at UNC, specially tested over an eight-year period, could not read at the high school level and that another 10 percent could not read above the third-grade level. Goldberg also interviews two football players from the university…

      And here is the full link:

      It’s just really sad.

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I come from a huge sports family where almost all the males and half the females (including me) graduated from our colleges on athletic scholarships. None of us had any pretenses about going pro (you might think that a family of athletics is genetically gifted… this is not the case, we are all slow but hard working and competitive).

    College sports are extremely taxing and they do take a lot of time, but they are also a lot of fun. The fact of the matter is that I could have never even come close to covering travel and living expenses on either the pro distance running or pro tennis circuit, but I got four years of living expenses paid and a college degree in economics (which did help me land my first job).

    So is the NCAA a good deal for the athletes who will be pro superstars? No.

    Is the NCAA good for athletes like me and the other 98% of athletes who don’t go pro? Yes- going to class is easier than holding a job and training.

    Penelope- I don’t know your whole volleyball story, but in some respects don’t you wish that you had four years of paid expenses great coaching and sliding through classes to pursue that pro volleyball dream? That’s what the NCAA would give you today, and I think that women’s volleyball might actually be a money making sport at some schools.

    • Leonie
      Leonie says:

      I have to agree with Hannah. This ruling just states the obvious – a college athlete who has the potential to play professionally is going to make more money from their athletic career than an academic one. To pretend otherwise does not show that higher education is worthless. An engineer is unlikely to make the yearly millions that pro athletes command – according to your logic this would also render that degree “worthless.” I do agree with you that American higher education is in much need of reform. However this type of sensationalist reasoning only hurts the cause.

      That said, I never understood the merger of athletics and academics to begin with. In most other countries academics is housed in schools and athletics are pursued at sports clubs. Forcing them together creates a weird (and unnecessary) conflict of interest unique to the U.S.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I think that the idea that the college degree (for the athletes) is worthless is because a degree that will make you more money in your lifetime than the sport is a degree like being a doctor or something like that. But for that to be the case you can’t be an athlete at the same time. The school work is too demanding. You have to be fully invested. So it’s possible that most athletes go for a degree that will just be a box to check off so that they can get the full ride and access to the sport but the school work load will be more than manageable.

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I was with you right up until your second-to-last paragraph. This doesn’t prove the worthlessness of a college education for all – just for athletes.

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    Holy cow! I am just completely blown away!

    You just sit and try to watch sports (I do because they are important to my husband and try to not space out) but just come back with amazing information.


    That’s how much money is being made from people working for free. Let’s say they get a full ride scholarship. Let’s say that they also get enough money to live off of while their education is being paid. Even then, they are underpaid comparing to what they’d make were they in the NBA.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Think about this… how much are college football coaches making per year? millions right? How much does a professor in engineering make per year? 65,000? I get completely apeshit over this… I get shaky and crazy about the complete insanity that this is.

      • Mark
        Mark says:

        Supply and demand.

        You’re not going to have typical engineering professors paid millions, so the only way to “equalize” the pay would be to prevent coaches from making us much. How does that help anyone?

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          Well, the average football coach ( highschool, liberal arts college in the boonies, YMCA, Colleges, and Universities) probably makes less than the average engineering professor. We just only see the super-top earners for the coaches which are really not that many. Th ones who walk away with a 40k salary as a highschool football coach are certainly many more in numbers.

      • mh
        mh says:

        To be consistent with other publicly stated income inequality ratio demands, state college head coaches should not make more than 10x the amount an adjunct professor earns.

        Heh heh heh

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Don’t even get me started down this path… the severity of the injustice being done to this kids cannot be comprehended by most of us on this side of the rainbow.

    I was speaking with a lawyer the other day, (I just randomly meet strangers who open up to me about their entire lives… weird since I’m a total introvert and just sit there quietly nodding the whole time) and he had a brilliant idea for college athletes who bring in money for the universities. Whatever profits these organizations make from the players should be put into an annuity for these kids, and they should absolutely be allowed to make money while they are in college from their talents and abilities… it’s literally all they have.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think it’s interesting to see that a lot of these athletes will get an easy degree just to stay in the school so they can play and have a shot at the big leagues.
      So if they don’t make it, they still earned the school lots of money and they walk away with nothing useful really.
      And being good at sports is a lot of work and dedication. Just like anything else really. So why shouldn’t they be paid?

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The NCAA is based in Indianapolis, Indiana and the Indianapolis Business Journal has a really good article ( http://www.ibj.com/big-money-under-close-scrutiny-at-ncaa-final-four/PARAMS/article/47018 ) dated 4/4/14 (day before Wisconsin-Kentucky game) covering the various money aspects (and hypocrisy) of collegiate athletics. I would have to say everybody agrees reform is way over due. However, unionization of the college student-athlete as a solution is higher debatable. This article in yesterday’s USA Today ( http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2014/04/06/mark-emmert-ncaa-structure-presidents-press-conference-unionization-labor/7382025/ ) covers the NCAA annual news conference at the Final Four in which NCAA president Mark Emmert “characterized the unionization of college athletes as a “grossly inappropriate” solution to the challenges facing college sports”. The IBJ article states – “Reform is needed,” Scott (Larry Scott who is commissioner of the Pac-12) said, adding that he’s opposed to unionization because it would only benefit lawyers, agents and some star players. “Not everyone can afford to do the kinds of things we’re talking about. The higher-resource conferences can, and want to, and will.” I agree with him and the football coach at Northwestern University. This mess doesn’t need an intervention by a third party which I think will make it more of a mess. This decision by Peter Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Chicago, will likely be litigated to the Supreme Court as reported in the IBJ article. Also I found this to be interesting – “The NCAA says only 23 of the more than 1,100 member colleges and universities make more money than they spend on sports each year.” I don’t have any answers but I’m more aware than ever how complex this problem really is.

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      “The NCAA says only 23 of the more than 1,100 member colleges and universities make more money than they spend on sports each year.”

      Interesting, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. If 98% of schools are publicly losing money then others would not follow suit. There must be unseen factors involved that drive profits.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Jayson, it’s been true for a long time that sports are an expense not covered by their own revenue generation for the vast majority of colleges. Yes, college sports make lots of money. But they spend all their money themselves and then some.

        Top administrators are comfortable with sports being a net expense for the university, because they believe in the intangibles of fame. Also, a winning team makes alumni happy. They don’t donate enough extra to cover the extra cost (the better your team does the more it costs the university), but they’re happier.

        They can always terminate a few humanities full professor slots if they need to lower expenses. What’s a Russian major compared to a spot in the 16?

  7. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    A controversial sports radio host named Dino Costa says in a hundred years, we will look back on free NCAA athletics as this generation’s version of slavery.

    Hard to argue with it. These schools make a fortune from their free labor, all while prohibiting the players from selling autographs or monetizing their skills in any way. What an absolute ripoff and immoral outrage.

    I’m really happy this issue is getting more attention!

  8. Lee
    Lee says:

    The NBA does not require anybody to first play in the NCAA (Lebron James and Kobe Bryant are two of the better known players to sign NBA contracts straight out of high school). So, to say that, “Those players could go straight to the NBA – and get paid – but instead the NBA forces them to play for free in the NCAA and then go to the NBA.” is incorrect. Maybe you jumped to that conclusion based on the “one and done” catchphrase so often being used to describe the players who jump to the NBA after a year in college.
    I believe the NFL, on the other hand, does have some sort of age requirement that pretty much requires a couple years of college.

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      Both of your examples were drafted well before the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement. They cannot go straight from high school any more. They must be 19 years old.

      You are correct in that they do not have to spend their time in the NCAA, but can join another league (overseas perhaps) or sit at home playing video games for a year. The reason they stay with the NCAA is to stay local and to keep their skills sharp.

  9. Mark
    Mark says:

    redrock wrote: ” I also think that society as a whole probably values the football coach more then the engineering professor – it is not simply a supply and demand question.”

    That is exactly a supply and demand question. Society as a whole, or enough of it, values the football coach more — demand — and there aren’t enough elite football coaches — supply — to meet that demand, so the cost goes up. If the demand went down or the supply went up, the cost of coaches would come down.

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      You cannot determine whether society values sports or engineering teacher based on this information. All we know is that one makes more money than the other. Not to mention the word “value” is being used in moral as well as economic terms here.

      Football coaches are creating a current and future source of revenue for the universities. Engineering professors create a future source of revenue for individuals.

      It’s no surprise that universities will choose to invest in sports and says little about what society values.

      • Mark
        Mark says:

        Sure you can, as long as you don’t presume “society” to mean a single monolithic entity.

        Why does one make more money than the other?

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      no, you cannot determine what society values from this information – it is my own personal assessment. Salaries are driven by many, many factors, and supply and demand is not a straightforward as it looks. You can have many engineers standing in line to become professors, which looks like huge supply, but only few fill the criteria to actually become a professor – which would make it low supply. However, this is usually not easy to determine, mostly because the number of applications for a given job will not include the “quality factor”.

      However, the statement
      “Football coaches are creating a current and future source of revenue for the universities. Engineering professors create a future source of revenue for individuals.” is quite incorrect. Patents, student education (and satisfied alumni), income from research funding overhead etc. clearly creates revenue for the University which is tied to the work of the engineering professor. And these are substantial sums: an average eng. prof. at a middle of the pack research university brings in about 500.000$/year, a good one maybe 3 mio$/year or even more, that goes with an overhead of about 60% – and you have maybe 100 engineering professors. Does add up, doesn’t it?

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        … and the Engineering professors money cited above flows back into the core business of the university, the income and revenue from the football games usually goes back into the athletic division so the benefit to the core part of the university is indirect (and hard to quantify).

        • Jayson
          Jayson says:

          Interesting, thanks. You anticipated my next line of reasoning about branding and where the money goes. :)

      • Mark
        Mark says:

        “You can have many engineers standing in line to become professors, which looks like huge supply, but only few fill the criteria to actually become a professor – which would make it low supply.”

        Your mistaken view that supply is greater doesn’t mean that supply actually is greater. When it becomes time to negotiate, the number of unqualified applicants will be irrelevant.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          well, then the number of qualified applicants is always one – namely the one who gets the job. I am merely pointing out that the statistics are of supply are often based on the number of applicants per position, not on the whittled down number of at least somewhat qualified applicants and in that manner supply has to be defined properly in each context.

  10. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    @Mark@redrock, my point wasn’t about supply v demand or even salary disparity. Mark, I’m an AnCap, so I don’t need to be convinced of letting the markets dictate what people are paid/worth.

    The point that I was trying to make is that presently, Universities are “claiming” to be educational institutions, not business making entities. I’m not saying that they cannot do both, THEY are claiming they are one and in reality they are more in the business to make money, fine.

    But then there are two points, first if you are going to offer a free education in exchange for these athletes coming to play for your university, then give them the education they were promised and not some herding into junk degrees that provide no value. Second, universities need to admit that they are a for profit business when it comes to the bigger sports programs, if coaches demand millions in salaries then players should also be compensated. Many of them will not make it into the professional teams and they deserve to make whatever income they can on their talents and abilities, they are not slaves! Pay them like you are paying the coaches, since THEY are bringing in the revenue by playing the games displaying the talents they were blessed with.

    My point in bringing up the salaries, was to draw attention to the fact that they CLAIM to be in the “education” business only, but they don’t pay equally, because it’s untrue, it’s a lie, otherwise coaches would be “educators” and paid an equivalent salary.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      First point: If a college athlete doesn’t get the education he was promised, it’s his fault. Every major athletics program — or at least all the ones with which I am familiar — has tutors and counselors and computer equipment and whatever else it can provide.

      There is an entire can of worms of issues here, though. The most glaring is that a lot of the guys on athletics scholarships would never have made it into the school under normal acceptance criteria. No small number of them simply don’t have the educational background and some simply don’t have the aptitude. Now, you can say, “Well, don’t let those guys in.” That’s fine, but you’re casting off the guys who take advantage of the chance to better their lives. Further, the athletics departments pay for the scholarships, so the cost to the university, if any, is minuscule.

      Second point: Players are compensated. Do you know what tuition, fees, books, room, board, etc. costs at a public university, let alone somewhere like Stanford?

      Most of what brings in the revenue is the school’s name. Players come and go, but Texas, Alabama, and USC are brands that endure. Winning helps, and better players help that, but there’s a lot more to revenue than players. Compare Boise State’s revenue to Texas’, even when Texas is down.

      I don’t know any school with a 1A athletics program that claims to be in the education business only. Even if they did, a coach that makes $5 million and brings in $15 million in incremental revenue is a bargain. There’s no economic reason to pay that person the same as a random history prof.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I agree to some degree – yes, student athletes get access to an education they otherwise might not have been able to obtain via the “normal” admission channels. But I also understand why they unionize – one of the goals is to have a collective bargaining power over an individual bargaining power. The ability to achieve something in a group which each player alone cannot do, be it salaries, or a less grueling travel schedule which allows at least some focus on academics.

        I don’t think the comparison between the random history professor and the top paid NCAA or whatever coach is valid – the coach is the TOP of his field, the random history professor is not. The more relevant question to the function of a university in general is the comparison between someone in administration (the 15th assistant dean or so….) and the professor. On average the 15th assistant dean has not more responsibilities than the prof teaching large classes, and doing research but is compensated comparatively better.

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