College Athletics Will Be Fixed When the NFL and NBA End Their Age-Based Discrimination

Josh Barro has a short piece in which he becomes the lastest respected policy wonk to call for the abolishment of big time college sports.

What the NCAA does is fundamentally abusive: it holds the wage for minor league football and basketball players down to zero, under the pretense that its workers are students.

Barro’s critique is a common one, but here’s a slightly altered version of that statement I think is much more apt:

What the NBA and NFL do is fundamentally abusive: they hold the wage for 18-year-old football and basketball players down to zero, under the pretense that they are doing what’s best for the kids.

The power behind the status quo in college sports isn’t the NCAA, it’s the NFL and the NBA. (Matthew Yglesias seems to be the only one who routinely points this out.) The two leagues engage is systematic age discrimination by refusing to hire qualified 18-year-olds (the NFL also bans most 19- and 20-year-olds.) You could defend this as a free market practice of private businesses, but the leagues have valuable anti-trust exemptions. The simple fact is that an 18-year-old man who is skilled at basketball is unfairly forbidden from getting paid market value for his skills. That’s not the NCAA’s fault, it’s the NBA’s fault.

We take this for granted because the current structure is so institutionalized, but imagine a pre-internet world where the only major record label owns all the major music venues, and one day it decides it won’t pay anybody under 20 for their music. Young musicians still get to attend prestigious musical academies for free, and while there they can perform on big stages for no money. Then when they turn 21 they are allowed to sign a record deal and make money off their talent. Finally, imagine the record label had special privileges that made it easier to stop competition. In this scenario nobody would focus their anger on the music academies because the schools would merely be taking advantage of a situation created by somebody else. Instead, people would focus on the corporation that was refusing to let 18-year-olds earn money.

You may notice that nobody ever complains about the problems in college baseball and college hockey. That’s because there aren’t very many. You know what else? The main thing baseball and hockey do that’s different from football and basketball is allow 18-year-olds to be paid professionals. As a result college baseball and college hockey don’t make truckloads of money, but they still have frenzied fanbases and provide a stage for viewing future professionals. In other words, they’re exactly what we want college football and basketball to be.

Setting up a legitimate minor league system for 18- and 19-year olds will take years and be a pain in the ass for the NBA and NFL. That’s why they let colleges make money in return for doing it. But no other half-measures and tweaks to the NCAA are going to solve major structural problems. The NCAA will remain “fundamentally abusive” until an 18-year-old is allowed to get paid market value for his skills.

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