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Pro-Sports Moochers and the True Cost of “Student Athletes”

Gareth Bale

“Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship,” said Kain Colter, starting quarterback for the Northwestern University football team this past January. “No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”

Colter’s push to form a union with his Northwestern teammates has reignited a long-simmering debate over the status of college athletes. It’s no secret that many institutions of higher learning cohabitate with athletic programs that are professional in everything but name, and that the NCAA clings to the clever verbal conjunction “student-athlete” in order to claim that scholarships alone provide athletes with equitable compensation for their labor. But as billion-dollar television contracts continue to stuff NCAA coffers, it’s difficult to not agree with civil rights historian Taylor Branch’s conclusion that the current system carries a “strong whiff of the plantation.”

One major constituency, however, has remained quiet during the debate over payment for college players: professional sports leagues, particularly the NFL and the NBA. In economic terms, the leagues are classic free riders, siphoning off the premier talent produced at American universities without paying anything for the privilege.

Consider an alternative model: European soccer. In Europe, most professional teams train their future stars in private academies. It’s a market-based system (don’t Americans love markets?), and Dutch power Ajax Amsterdam is the classic model.


Players enter the Ajax academy when they are as young as seven, and train to become professional players. Though private tutors provide a secondary education, Ajax and other European clubs make no pretensions about the arrangement: they are training soccer players, not “student athletes.” After school, the worst players get cut and return to civilian life, the better players star professionally for Ajax, and the best players are “sold” when another team purchases their contract for an often exorbitant fee. Why so much cash? A fully developed star is a rare commodity, and big money teams like Manchester City are willing to be exorbitant fees to acquire one. Last summer, Spanish super club Real Madrid paid London’s Tottenham Hotspur a reported $132 million to acquire Welsh star Gareth Bale. The Dutch model (buy low, sell high!) has been copied across Europe. In recent years, the sale of five Ajax players netted the team $80 million in transfer fees as bigger teams purchased Ajax’s premier talent.

So what would a European-style development system look like in American sports? Imagine if the Cleveland Browns had to pay the Texas A&M directly for the rights to Johnny “Football” Manziel. Want LeBron James? Let’s start the bidding at $50 million. The days of the draft, the annual pro sports meat market where scouts drool over college prospects, would be over. Big teams in big markets would pay top dollar and get the best players, and the relative parity that characterizes many American sports leagues would vanish. In such a competitive economic environment, professional teams would be incentivized to develop their own players; big-time college sports, long cloaked in a veneer of amateurism, could become a distant memory.

It’s a radical idea, but one that might be necessary to save colleges from themselves. As the recent academic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown, many flagship state universities have sacrificed their academic standards in pursuit of athletic success. Rashad McCants, a former star of the Carolina basketball team, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines in April that tutors wrote most his papers, he rarely went to class, and a “paper class” system existed where athletes needed to only write (or have a tutor write) one term paper to receive academic credit. “You just show up and play,” McCants said. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that.”

Just as student athletes are sacrificing their academics for sports, so too are school budgets. As overall academic budgets stagnate, and adjunct faculty members survive on food stamps, American universities still scramble to construct multi-million-dollar luxury dorms for athletes. Perennial powerhouse Kentucky recently built the $7 million Wildcat Coal Lodge to house their men’s basketball team, complete with flat-screen televisions, leather recliners, and a personal chef. To compete in this dormitory arms-race, the University of Kansas recently announced plans to construct a $17 million apartment complex for thirty-two men’s and women’s basketball players, collecting funds from athletic boosters to avoid financing the project through state-issued bonds.

It would be disingenuous to claim that every dollar currently spent on athletics could instead be given to an academic program; many private donors only want to support athletics. But money implies value. When art, chemistry, and French majors walk onto the leafy campus of the University of Kansas this fall and see the $17 million dollar dorm built to house the basketball team (as they move into the old basketball dorm that smells faintly of urine), the institution will have signaled with its dollars that hoops trump history.

Again, Europe provides an interesting alternative model to this troubling pattern. Unlike American universities, European schools are not expected to lavish amenities on students beyond the four walls of a classroom, and competitive university athletic programs are almost nonexistent.

The result of this spartan approach to education? Low tuition, owing both to the paucity of student life provided and heavy government subsidies. While tuition averaged $585 a year for students in France and $3,125 for students in the Netherlands in 2010, the sticker price for public institutions in America averaged $14,292. And the average price for a private American education? A whopping $33,047 per year.

The European alternative models are clearly imperfect, but it’s worth considering the unseen costs that college sports place on universities. Big-time college players are professionals, and should be compensated accordingly, just as pro leagues should be compelled to pay for the rights to these athletes.

It’s time for the NFL, the NBA and American pro leagues to end their free-rider status and spend their own money to develop professional athletes. It’s not like they can’t afford it. In 2013, the NFL earned $9 billion in annual revenue, and commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that he won’t be content until the NFL’s money-grubbing tentacles suck up $25 billion a year. American universities have silently supported this profiteering for far too long.