These are my thoughts and not those of Northwestern University, Northwestern Athletics, the Northwestern football team, nor of the Northwestern football players.
- As usual, the emergence of a unionization movement is the symptom of a problem rather than the cause. Also as usual, a union is likely to only make the problem worse.
- From a strategic point of view the NCAA has made a huge blunder in not making a few pre-emptive moves that would have removed all of the political momentum this movement might eventually have. Few in the general public are ever going to get behind the idea of paying college athletes. Many however will support the idea of giving college athletes long-term health insurance and guaranteeing scholarships to players who can no longer play due to injury. Eventually the NCAA will concede on at least those two dimensions. Waiting to be forced into it by a union or the threat of a union will only lead to a situation which is far worse for the NCAA in the long run.
- The personalities of Kain Colter and Northwestern football add to the interest in the case because as Rodger Sherman points out Northwestern treats its athletes better than just about any other university and Kain Colter is on record saying he loves Northwestern and his coaches. But these developments are bigger than the individuals involved. They stem from economic forces that were going to come to a head sooner or later anyway.
- Before taking sides, take the following line of thought for a spin. If today the NCAA lifted restrictions on player compensation, tomorrow all major athletic programs and their players would mutually, voluntarily enter into agreements where players were paid in some form or another in return for their commitment to the team. We know this because those programs are trying hard to do exactly that every single year. We call those efforts recruiting violations.
- Once that is understood it is clear that to support the NCAA’s position is to support restricting trade that its member schools and student athletes reveal year after year that they want very much. When you hear that universities oppose removing those restrictions you understand that whey they really oppose is removing those restrictions for their opponents. In other words, the NCAA is imposing a collusive arrangement because the NCAA has a claim to a significant portion of the rents from collusion.
- Therefore, in order to take a principled position against these developments you must point to some externality that makes this the exceptional case where collusion is justified.
- For sure, “Everyone will lose interest in college athletics once the players become true professionals” is a valid argument along these lines. Indeed it is easy to write down a model where paying players destroys the sport and yet the only equilibrium is all teams pay their players and the sport is destroyed.
- However, the statement in quotes above is almost surely false. Professional sports are pretty popular. And anyway this kind of argument is usually just a way to avoid thinking seriously about tradeoffs and incremental changes. For example, how many would lose interest in college athletics if tomorrow football players were given a 1% stake in total revenue from the sale of tickets to see them play?
- My summary of all this would be that there are clearly desirable compromises that could be found but the more entrenched the parties get the smaller will be the benefits of those compromises when they eventually, inevitably, happen.