by Robert E. McCormick and Robert D. Tollison*
Two great American institutions are about to crank up. Freshman and their older classmates will soon start returning to campuses for fall classes. Soon thereafter or about the same time, fans will fill stadiums and the 2011 college football season will begin. These two events come together almost naturally and have for over 100 years. The former may be one of the best examples anywhere of competition among universities and colleges, but the latter is surely one of the best examples of a cartel. Recent athletic resignations and firings at Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and now most recently the University of North Carolina demonstrate that the corrupting influences of the NCAA cartel on the academy have reached the highest levels of our public universities. Doubtless there are few people on earth who care less about the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill than us (since it is a prime competitor in intercollegiate sports), but in spite of this, the time has come to stand up and be counted on the athletic scandal that has engulfed UNC-CH and so many other institutions of higher learning in our country (including Georgia Tech and Ohio State). UNC-CH is not just a university, it is regularly rated as one of the top five public universities in the United States.
What is the root of the problem here? We assert it is the enormous economic rents, or free money, that have been created by the NCAA cartel. Moreover, no college or university can be expected to withstand the ill-gotten gain that lurks underneath the NCAA banner. The NCAA is a cartel of the major athletic universities in the United States that sets wages, playing conditions, and other aspects of intercollegiate athletics. Most prominently of these is a restriction on payments to football and basketball players. These two sports create billions of dollars in local and national revenues via gate receipts, TV contracts, and ancillary merchandise, not to mention millions of dollars annually at member schools in donations by alumni and other supporters of athletic programs.
Coaches sign multi-year multi-million dollar contracts while players get tuition, room and board, and recently, only because of an important court case (White v. NCAA), some pocket money to cover the cost of living. Big chunks of these revenues also go to support other men and women athletic teams on campuses, swimming, track, golf, soccer, and the like. None of this would be possible but for the overarching cartel agreement between all of the major U.S. colleges and universities operated under the umbrella of the NCAA.
Both of us have long held, along with numerous other economists (such as Gary Becker and Robert Barro), that the NCAA’s cartel harms the market, the world, and the athletes, but now we are prepared to claim more. To wit, this crisis in athletics puts the American system of higher education at risk.
Despite our earlier disclaimer, UNC-CH is an incredible academic institution, a virtual colossus of graduate education, research, and professional education. Yet with all its storied history and social importance, the school has put its institutional credibility and brand name at risk by succumbing to the perverse incentives created by the cartel, a cartel whose primary function is to maintain a façade of amateurism on the one hand while aggressively pursuing commercial profits on the other. Never mind the morality of the arrangement. Focus instead on what this temptation has done to the University, and remember that this has been happening at lesser schools for a long time. Now that it has reached the ranks of most elite universities, it is hard to argue that any school is immune from becoming ensnared in the inevitable trap that lies in the huge gulf between amateur inputs (the lowly paid players) and professional outputs (massive TV contracts, alumni donations, and ticket prices).
Hear us clearly, we are NOT arguing to pay players. We are lamenting the diminution of the reputation of a top ranked public university and the warning signal that it sends about the dangers of the incentives created in this case. We believe in amateurism, deeply. But we believe that it should apply broadly to the coaches, the fans, and all the rest of the participants in intercollegiate sports. If amateurism is a shrine, then let us all worship it. The fans should get to see the games for nothing or nearly so (the costs of facilities and game day services). The coaches should be faculty or volunteers as they are in Little League and in local neighborhoods. It is not amateurism, but the business of intercollegiate athletics is a growing cancer bound to infect other storied American institutions of higher education.
Where does the fault lie? It lies plainly on the shoulders of the NCAA cartel. We propose that our school, Clemson, and the rest of the schools in the ACC leave the organization, sit down, take stock and decide whether the Ivy League approach is better for the ACC (no athletic scholarships) or whether the players should receive reasonable compensation. We do not take a position on the issue. Each league within the NCAA should do the same, and we doubt that they will all choose the same course. Some will go the Ivy route, others the payment route. And that is as it should be. There should NOT be one authority in control of almost all collegiate athletics in the United States. Competition is salutary, and it should prevail both on and off the field.
Cartels are a bad bargain. They raise price to consumers, reduce output and social welfare, and enrich one class of participants at the expense of another, creating envy and strife. The NCAA cartel is especially perverse because it disadvantages young people (often from challenging backgrounds) to the advantage of adults. And worse, it is morally corrupting to these same young people, compounded by the fact that it derives from the same university institutions society has charged to nurture them to adulthood.
At present, coaches, even those trying to live by the rules, daily confront moral dilemmas and choices. But the nature of the restrictions creates two sets of rules (written and unwritten), and our young college students, both the athletes and their classmates, are not being taught to play by the rules. They are being taught, “everyone cheats, we got caught, it is no big deal.” Paying under the table is okay. Having tutors write term papers is okay for athletes who are working their rear ends off to practice especially if they are good and the team is winning.
Students are being taught that ends matter, but means do not. Our educational system is built upon honor, integrity, and the search for truth as bedrocks. Yet these same foundations are washed away on a regular basis by phenomenal dollars made available by the cartel. What is a young person to believe? That it is wrong to crib on a test or plagiarize a term paper, but okay to lie to the NCAA investigator? That it is right and proper to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate or in need, but wrong to do so if they have signed an athletic scholarship? Our universities need to stand for our culture, and our culture should not be about lying, half-lying, deviousness, and cheating. There is only one way to end cheating- resolve the conflict between amateurism and professionalism, either by making both sides professional or both sides amateur. But the current situation is unsustainable and puts institutions of higher education at risk.
We contend that the moral fiber of the university is one of its most powerful social virtues. It helps bring young people to adulthood with a care and concern that things are done correctly and on the up and up ethically. There is a clear positive implication of our argument. Cheating teaches cheating, and it is a mistake to think that our kids will not watch what we do instead of what we say. The scandals that now infect the best universities in the land will almost surely lead to more and more academic dishonesty and disregard for the basic traditions of the academy if something does not happen to reverse course. Cheating in the athletic department begets cheating in the classroom and perhaps generally in life. This is a prediction of our argument albeit a depressing one.
It is critical to note that we are big fans of the coexistence of athletics and academics. Our research speaks loudly and clearly on this. We support athletics as part of university education and think the two together make for the best organizational arrangement. Our cry is NOT about athletics, but about the NCAA cartel that creates the rents and free money that shred the moral underpinnings of our home, the academy.
A la Ronald Reagan, we say tear down the wall around truth and dignity. Clemson, UNC, Georgia Tech, and all the rest should refuse the financial inducements offered by the NCAA. Return to amateur intercollegiate sports, or pay the players. Nothing less than the integrity and quality of our universities is at stake.
*We are Professor Emeritus and BB&T Scholar and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Economics in the John Walker Department of Economics at Clemson University. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com respectively.