The amateur athlete

When I interviewed Moneyball author Michael Lewis back in September, he mentioned a piece he was working on, which argued thatt college football players should be paid for they create a product that generates a significant amount of revenue for their universities. Growing up, I had a somewhat romatic notion of the amateur athlete who works on and displays his skills, untained by commercial interests. Of course, commercial interests are all over collegiate sports, so why not just call a spade a spade? Lewis writes in today’s New York Times:

College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?

This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen.

But between buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves — to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids. The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue N.F.L. careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable.