Pay-for-play -- the truth behind the myths

Originally Published: July 15, 2011
By Andy Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

It happens so often that it's barely even scandalous anymore.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Dave MartinTerrelle Pryor left Ohio State after being accused of selling memorabilia.

Some college or its boosters are caught giving "extra benefits" to college football players. In some case the allegations range into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, as was the case with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor. Economically, these scandals are clear evidence that the NCAA's level of compensation for athletes is so far below the market rate that cheating is irresistible. Despite this, it seems inevitable that well-intentioned columnists, coaches and sports legends weigh in, saying it would be great to pay players, but a long list of impediments makes impossible anything except the NCAA's scholarship-only system.

Every one of those reasons is wrong. Join me on a tour of the top myths about paying college athletes.

Myth 1: It's too hard to figure out how to pay players fairly.

Just pay them. End the central committee deciding maximum benefits. Let each school make its offers, and let incoming high school athletes and their parents decide which to accept. This is how salaries are set across the world. This is probably how your pay was set. Notre Dame doesn't need USC to tell it what it can or can't offer.

Different levels of pay on a team won't hurt cohesion either. It's not hurt in college baseball, where scholarships vary widely across players, or in professional sports, where superstars and league minimum athletes win Super Bowls and World Series together.

Myth 2: Title IX outlaws paying players.

Title IX does not require identical spending on men's and women's sports, but it is true that the letter of Title IX law requires that spending on women's sports closely track spending on men's. However, in practice this is simply does not happen. All 73 schools in BCS AQ conferences (including seven non-football schools) spend more on men's sports than on women's, and almost all of them provide disproportionate student aid to men over women. Title IX also considers coaching pay a form of athletic equity and yet all 73 major programs pay their men's teams' coaches more than their women's teams'. In practice, Title IX does not ensure that every dollar spent on men is matched by a dollar spent on women.

But if each new dollar of spending were required to go equally to men and women, the system would function like a payroll or sales tax. Pay a QB $50,000? Then pay $50,000 to women's programs, too. This would keep salaries down but not eliminate them, just as cigarette taxes don't eliminate cigarette sales. And it would be a boon to women's sports as well.

Myth 3: Pay will ruin competitive balance.

What competitive balance? When players are paid, some schools will offer less than others. Teams spending more will get better talent, just like they do today.

Today there are haves and have-nots. Haves recruit great players and consistently win. Have-nots get the leftovers and occasionally luck into hidden gems who gel as seniors and win. Over the last 10 years, more than 99 percent of the top 100 high school prospects chose BCS AQs. Alabama plays Kent State this September, but what top recruit would spurn an offer from Alabama to attend Kent? Ironically, letting have-nots use cash is the best way to overcome the current unlevel playing field.



The results on the field and court reflect this disparity in recruiting: Since 1985, 91 percent of all top 20 and top 25 football teams and 92 percent of all Final Four basketball teams have come from the six "have" conferences.

Myth 4: Paid athletes can't be real students.

Students earn money all the time. James Franco was a paid actor while majoring in English at UCLA; other English majors were paid to work at the library. Northeastern's co-op Education program requires undergraduates to switch between the classroom and paying jobs, while remaining full-time students.

Forgoing pay does not turn football players into real college students. They are students for all of the non-football things they do: going to class, joining a study group, falling asleep in the library, etc. Ask your bursar's office if having a paying job disqualifies you for being a full-time student. It doesn't.

Myth 5: Paying athletes means that fans won't watch.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCompetitive advantage? TV deals already give schools like Notre Dame a leg up.

Yep, just like the Olympics or golf. The claim was that no one would watch professionals in these (and other) sports. Now we rank the world's best golfers based on tournament earnings. And we adored the 1992 professional Olympic Dream Team.

Which would you pick: great seats at the BCS championship game (but with paid athletes) or great seats at the D-III championship (with non-scholarship athletes)? Will Florida Gators fans switch their allegiance to the Central Florida Knights if the Gators paid players and the Knights didn't? Fat chance.

These are not the only myths out there. There's the one about how players get too much already, and any non-athlete would be thrilled to get such a deal. But the non-athletes are already getting a market rate, it's just the athletes who are not. There's the circular logic about how paying players violates NCAA rules; so just change the rule to let a school pay what it wants. There's the one about how no one forces kids to take scholarships, but a monopolist's take-it-or-leave-it offer isn't the same as the true competitive outcome.

Finally, there's the one about how schools are too poor to pay athletes. Then don't! End the nationwide monopoly; let each school offer what it wants without being forced to pay more or less by other schools. Poor schools won't pay more than they do now; richer ones will. But it will all work out. That's no myth.

Andy Schwarz (@andyhre on twitter) is an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony. A fuller version of this article ("13 NCAA Myths") as well as other thoughts on the economics of sports can be found at the Sportsgeekonomics blog.