Letter to the Editor: A response to Dr. Wang on college athletes

Jonathan Forman

Last year, I wrote to The Daily in response to Dr. Norman Wang, shortly after Kain Colter and College Athletes Players Association announced their intention to have a union election for Northwestern football players. Since that time, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has made some nominal changes in response to intense public pressure, including repealing the rule that limited athletes’ meals and allowing the “Power 5” conferences to create many of their own rules, such as offering a “cost of attendance” stipend to athletes. While these changes are small, they are indicative of the way this conversation is being perceived across the nation.

Now, one year after the union election, Dr. Wang writes again, arguing that athletes are not exploited, that they have a real value near zero beyond their association to the NCAA and member schools, and that the true failing of the NCAA is not that it has a seemingly-exponential profit growth that is not placed in its athletes’ pockets, but rather that it does not provide its athletes with a proper education because of increased time commitments and number of games.

Dr. Wang’s first two arguments go hand-in-hand, because if the players are truly worth nothing outside the confines of the NCAA, then they must not be exploited. But we know that these players do indeed have value, which schools themselves have implicitly acknowledged. As laid out by Andy Schwarz in an excellent VICE Sports article, the fact that these players receive scholarships when the school has no obligation to provide them proves that the school values them at least at the cost of a scholarship, if not more.

The issue of exploitation comes in because the NCAA limits the potential earning value of players, when the players themselves have had no input into that decision-making process. Twelve of the 14 Big Ten schools are projected to make $44.5 million in 2018 based off their TV contract alone, yet the players will be limited from selling autographs or signing endorsement deals in an effort to uphold the sanctity of “student-athletes.” As Dr. Wang points out, membership on a football team is entirely voluntary, but it remains the only viable path to a career in the NFL and an important aspect of unionism is that we don’t tell employees “if you don’t like it, leave.” As college sports have become increasingly profitable, athlete compensation has been almost completely static. Those economics do not make sense.

Besides, if opponents of reform truly believe that athletes have a market value near zero, then they should have no problem lifting the restriction on an athlete’s ability to earn additional profit. If the athlete is indeed worth near zero, then the market will quickly make him aware of that fact by providing him little or no extra spending money. To me, testing the free market seems to be the easiest way to answer the question of how much these athletes are truly worth.

As for Dr. Wang’s contention that educational opportunities go to waste for these athletes, recent scandals at schools like University of North Carolina show us that this must be true. But the NCAA and member schools have no incentive to adopt Dr. Wang’s proposals for reform, such as cutting back on the number of games played. Logic tells us that, when acting with no pushback, the NCAA is going to make changes that will allow it to make more money, not less.

Ironically, Dr. Wang’s proposed reforms could potentially be achieved by the thing he seems to fear most: giving athletes a voice in college sports.

Jonathan Forman
WCAS 2012