“March Madness” involves a tournament of now 68 top college basketball teams. It culminates tomorrow night in the championship game between upstart Butler and perennial basketball power, the University of Connecticut. The National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) sanctioned basketball playoffs start in middle of March and attract a large audience in attendance, and additional millions who watch the games on television all over the world. Every year prior to this final tournament, and sometimes even during the tournament, different violations become public of NCAA rules on behavior of players and coaches. Violations of these rules by colleges are to be expected because the rules are basically an attempt by the NCAA to suppress competition among schools for college basketball and football players, the two most lucrative and most watched college sports, and thereby increase the profits to schools from these sports.
The toughest competition for basketball and football players occurs at the Division I level. These sports have both large attendances at games-sometimes, more than 100,000 persons attend college football games- and widespread television coverage. As a result, many Division I schools with big time sports programs get many millions of dollars from their basketball and football programs. Absent the rules enforced by the NCAA, the competition for players would stiffen, especially for the big stars, as they would receive large scholarships and various gifts of cars, housing, and cash to themselves and their families. Payment to players, if competition for players were allowed to operate freely, would severely eat into the profits made by colleges from the big time sports.
To avoid that outcome, the NCAA sharply limits the number of athletic scholarships, and even more importantly, limits the size of the scholarships that schools can offer the best players. NCAA rules also severely restricts the gifts and housing players are allowed to receive from alumni and others, do not allow college players to receive pay for playing for professional teams during summers or even before they attended college, and limits what they can be paid for non-playing summer work. The rules are extremely complicated, and they constitute hundreds of pages that lay out what is permitted in recruiting prospective students, when students have to make binding commitments to attend schools, the need to renew athletic scholarships, the assistance that can be provided to players’ parents, and of course the size of scholarships.
It is impossible for an outsider to look at these rules without concluding that their main aim is to make the NCAA an effective cartel that severely constrains competition among schools for players. The NCAA defends these rules by claiming that their main purpose is to prevent exploitation of student-athletes, to provide a more equitable system of recruitment that enables many colleges to maintain football and basketball programs and actively search for athletes, and to insure that the athletes become students as well as athletes.
Unfortunately for the NCAA, the facts are blatantly inconsistent with these defenses. Consider the recent widely publicized violation of NCAA rules by five Ohio State football players and their coach. The players’ “crime” was that they sold some of their football memorabilia, including signed autographs, for modest sums, and for tattoos. The coach’s “crime” was that he failed to report these violations in a timely fashion. All the players involved, which includes the star of the team, and the very respected coach, will have to miss the first 5 games of the 2011 season. This is almost half of the 12 games played during the regular season. Nothing done by the players involved stolen property or anything else that would violate any laws except those imposed on players by the NCAA.
A large fraction of the Division I players in basketball and football, the two big money sports, are recruited from poor families; many of them are African-Americans from inner cities and rural areas. Every restriction on the size of scholarships that can be given to athletes in these sports usually takes money away from poor athletes and their families, and in effect transfers these resources to richer students in the form of lower tuition and cheaper tickets for games.
That players are recruited as students as well as athletes applies to a considerable extent to Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame, and a few other Division I schools that have high academic standards. The NCAA points out that the overall average graduation rate is about the same for student-athletes as it is for other students. That result also applies to African American and Hispanic students. However, the graduation rates for these minority students-athletes are depressingly low. For example, the average graduation rate of Division I African American basketball and football players appears to be less than 50%.
Some of the top players quit school to play in the NBA or NFL, but that is a tiny fraction of all athletes who dropout. The vast majority dropout either because they use up their sports eligibility before they completed the required number of classes, or they failed to continue to make the teams. Schools usually forget about athletes when they stop competing. An important further difference between athletes and non-athletes who dropout of school is that athletes would have been able to get much better financial support for themselves and their families but for the NCAA restrictions on compensation to athletes. They could have used these additional assets to help them finish school, or to get a better start if they dropped out.
In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NCAA’s restrictions on the televising of college football games an illegal conspiracy in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The court said, “good motives alone will not validate an otherwise anticompetitive practice”. Since that decision, the televising of college football and basketball games has rapidly increased. It is time for the court to apply the same valid reasoning to the restrictions on scholarships and other aspects of the competition by colleges for athletes, and to declare these restrictions also a violation of the Sherman Act. Were that done, both student-athletes and schools with greater concern for academic performance of their athletes would gain at the expense of colleges that put athletic competition before academic achievements.