March Madness: The NCAA’s Monopoly on Sports

Last week I read this story about Michael Bowers, a former high school kid whose standing as a special education student may have cost him a chance at playing college football (many details of the case are disputed, which is winding its way through the courts).  Of course, if an athlete is ineligible to play in the NCAA, his chances of playing in the NFL are next to nil.  Which got me to thinking about the NCAA’s stranglehold on athletic talent, particularly mens basketball and football players. 

If I want a chance to play in the NBA or NFL, the only real path to these leagues runs through the NCAA.  However, if I want to play professional baseball or ice hockey, I can either attend college to play in the NCAA, or I can play in the minor leagues of these sports.  In two of the four major professional sports (baseball and hockey – is hockey still a major sport?) the athlete has a choice between professional minor leagues and college sports.  In football and basketball, he does not – the NCAA is the only option.

This is too bad.  Whereas I thoroughly and completely believe in education and think that many young people can (and should!) use athletic ability as a ticket to college, the lack of options creates a system that places too many burdens on athletes who, for whatever reason, have little interest (or ability) to pursue a college education.  And though I am not an advocate for paying NCAA athletes, I do think young athletes should have an option to compete for a paid position on a professional minor league team upon graduation from high school.  Young baseball and hockey players get to choose between college sports and the professional minor leagues.  Why not football and basketball players, too?

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

7 thoughts on “March Madness: The NCAA’s Monopoly on Sports

  1. I want to state this carefully, because I don’t want to sound hostile:
    Do we really want to encourage the ’30-year old has-been without any college experience’ model of former athlete?
    More delicately this time:
    Already many children in low-income neighborhoods view professional sports as the avenue away from their parents’ poverty. Students who are capable enough to play professional sports immediately out of high school, though I would venture that that number is incredibly few, would be even further limited by the very real possibility that by age 30 they are no longer capable of playing the sport. Injuries, new talent, the performance ceiling, all these factors cut the no-college athlete’s average career-span down very far. If the end of high school signifies the beginning of the career, then what use even is a high school education? Why not simply take GED courses during early teen years, and then begin minor league try-outs at age 15 or 16?
    Ask why baseball and hockey players aren’t held to the same standard, and I’ll give you a simple answer. Those two sports necesitate a little more wealth. Baseball requires a diamond, bat, ball, and gloves. Hockey players need a local (free) rink, pads, sticks and a puck. Football? You really only need a ball and a field, but pads and helmets are nice. Basketball? A ball. Hoops are easy to find; they are in almost every public park.
    Rather than lowering the bar for basketball and football, why don’t we raise it for other big money professional sports? We could then institute a little equality that raises people up to success, rather than lowering them to easy failure.

  2. Bill,
    Bring on the hostility (I can handle it). As I mentioned in my post I’m all for education. I think everyone should get an education. But I think, too, that education should be a choice.
    Isn’t it a bit paternalistic for the (white) establishment to tell athletes in primarily black sports that they must play in college and risk career-ending injuries while not earning a single penny, whereas players in the predominately white sports (hockey and baseball) can choose to sign minor league contracts, compete at a high level unencumbered by NCAA rules, coursework, etc., and get a paycheck?
    For me it’s a free market, access to career path, thing. Somewhere in my heart of hearts I’m a free market capitalist (I once was a registered Republican), and the NCAA’s exclusive control of the only road leading to the NBA and NFL bothers me. If an athlete wants to go to college for free and play basketball, God bless him. But also give him the chance to sign a minor league contract (and get paid minor league money) to develop his skills that way. The lack of choice is fundamentally bad for the athlete, even the student-athlete.
    The colleges would still have a significant advantage in this scheme. By their sheer numbers, colleges would have many more positions to offer than any upstart minor basketball or football league could offer. Though the better athletes might be lured to play for pay in the professional minor leagues (team owners would only be willing to pay for the best young athletes), most of the second-tier (and lower) players would likely only have college as an option, thus providing those athletes who have less likelihood of playing in the big leagues with a college education and preparation for a world beyond sports.
    Most college athletes, of course, do not become NBA or NFL pros. But neither do the majority of baseball minor leaguers. And that’s ok! There is nothing wrong with playing baseball (or any other sport) at the highly competitive level of the professional minor leagues. Many have done this only to return to college in their late 20s, or to take up another line of work following the end of their athletic career. Rather than support the NCAA’s monopoly on some they-don’t-know-what’s-best-for-them logic that dangles the athletic carrot as incentive for earning an education they otherwise wouldn’t choose if such a monopoly didn’t exist, I’d rather put the choice, the options, and the opportunity into the hands of the athletes.

  3. I’ll be honest: I’m not too worried about your ability to handle hostility. I’ve seen you in group meetings.
    I don’t think the paternalistic argument will work here, even though the word makes us come-lately liberals quiver and quake. How many black team owners are there in the ‘primarily black sports’? Who really benefits from encouraging impoverished young black men to get into sports? Owners, advertisers, major cities, and above all, businessmen are high on my list of answers. Is that not a paternalistic system already? One that we could overcome by giving athletes additional skills that go beyond the field?
    So here’s my conservative side showing… let’s look at this from a business standpoint:
    You’d be hard-pressed to find the Fortune 500 company that would hire a talented man or woman into its upper echelons without a college degree. So why should a professional sports franchise that doesn’t farm its own talent? Football could start a minor league, sure, but the owners haven’t elected to do so… therefore, they are complicit in the NCAA requirement. It’s their business decision, and your beef should be with them.
    Further, I would suggest that the ‘monopoly’ of the NCAA should be considered intense career training laden with many more benefits. What high school football program gives its athletes the discipline or skills to equal the programs at Texas or Florida or USC? And after completing such a program, the athlete is well on his way to (or possibly finished with) a finance or business or other degree.
    As for the lack of pay… well sure, I agree to some extent. Playing football in college does not pay actual money (except in some rare, punishable circumstances that seem to go on all the time). There are, however, scholarships with food plans included, free living space, and other nominal benefits, but regular salary is not a part of it. And I must plead ignorance here: how well does a minor league salary pay? Are scholarships not comparable?
    I don’t think my original argument was a “they-don’t-know-what’s-best-for-them” argument; it was an argument for higher standards for all players. The choice of absorbing the extra education in an undergraduate program is still entirely up to the athlete, but the requirement of going through the NCAA forces competition to take place at a higher level unless there is a well-developed minor league system. If you want to argue for the development of such systems in football and basketball, I’ll listen to your argument. But you must prove that it will be profitable to owners and athletes and not just point a finger at the NCAA ‘monopoly’.

  4. My biggest argument against the college sports system is that the universtities are apparently making big money off of the athletes, although with the cost of stadiums, I’m not really sure how the dollars work out. The college sports get the universities lots of free publicity.
    But, based on some reports, some of these universities aren’t so picky as to the academic ability of those who get into the programs and not so picky as to the athletes keeping up with their school work. So are they really getting an education? [Yes, it is up to the athlete to absorb the education or not.]
    Division 3 schools don’t give athletic scholarships and they demand more of their students accademically. But even these teams aren’t that easy to get on. This was my son’s unhappy experience at two colleges.
    BTW, if you listened to our local TV stations, you’d KNOW that hockey is still a major sport, at least on the college level. We have a number of division 1 schools, men and women, in our state. I can’t understand how a person can be a student AND fly off to Boston and Alaska for games. Maybe it is just plain stupidity to keep high level sports in colleges.

  5. Hmmm… very good questions. My first thought was regarding talent levels.
    First, I must state that my talent level in any of these four sports disqualifies me from any participation other than yelling at the tv.
    I wonder if Basketball and Football require more talent development (I was careful not to simply say that they require more talent). Is it possible that the 3 or 4 years of play in a school develops talent far beyond that of the minor leagues in baseball and hockey?
    Maybe not…
    What about this? Is it possible that providing minor league alternatives for basketball and football may be too expensive for pro teams? Especially now… why try to build a minor league system when you already have the NCAA developing player talent?
    Also – I have no conclusions surrounding this comment – remember that baseball players not only have the choice of playing for the single A club or the University of Texas. They can also play for Austin College or Howard Payne, and still develop a pro level talent. I doubt many NBA stars played at small liberal arts schools.

  6. Hmmmm, from the baseball point of view, I think the players would say that baseball takes more talent development. The kids who don’t start playing in grade school won’t have the experience to play baseball in high school and won’t make the team. If they are good enough to play in the minors, they have to be drafted, which means being good enough to catch the eye of a scout. Playing in even division 3 takes a high level of skill and talent. Some go the route of the junior college so that they have a greater chance to play. Then they might catch the eye of a scout or have a chance to move into college baseball.
    I’m not saying that basketball and football don’t take a lot of talent development, a good phrase, but that baseball and hockey take more years to get the experience necessary to play with any level of confidence. Hockey is probably the hardest of all these sports.

  7. Not really to help or hinder the conversation, merely to add some trivia (mostly about me, now that I look at it):
    I won’t comment on the necessary skill level of one sport compared to another. When it comes to playing sports, I’ll agree with Kevin: you can find me on the couch, with chips and queso, shouting at the tv. I find them all difficult to play even semi-professionally. I have no arm, no aim, no skating ability, and ‘keep your eye on the ball’ is more of a jeer than sound advice to me.
    And since few people probably know it, Austin College is the alma mater of both Kevin and me. It’s a small school, there are few of us alums. 1200 students don’t really have much need for a well-developed sports program, but some of us cheer on the ‘Roos, and intra-mural sports were always a big hit.
    I would also like to recommend Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. While it is fiction, it emerges from a lot of research he did interviewing college students… and I am of the opinion that there are only a few schools that fit the model he ‘creates’: An academic powerhouse school with a powerhouse basketball program located somewhere to the east of the Appalachian Mountains.
    The reason I mention it is that he contends (in an almost off-handed way) that a well-developed sports program does little to bolster a university’s overall income, because the expense is astronomical. Instead, such a program merely raises the overall prestige of the school, if that’s your thing. Wolfe’s not alone in this opinion. While reading about the Duke Men’s Lacrosse scandal, I ran across that same thought many times.

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