A reader, Marcus Detry, alerted me to the case of Ramon McElrathbey, and if you had any lingering doubts about the ridiculousness of the NCAA, this should dispel them.
The case is written up nicely by "The Wizard of Odds" but the gist of it is this. McElrathbey is a cornerback for the Clemson University football team. He is one of seven children. His mother is a crack addict, and his father has a gambling problem and is no where to be found. He grew up bouncing around foster homes. This summer, he decided--with his mother's consent--to take custody of his 11 year old brother. They now live in a cramped off campus apartment, as McElrathbey tries to be a student, athlete, brother and father simultaneously. When a story was published about McElrathbey in alocal paper, he was deluged with donations and gifts and offers to help. But of course Clemson had to step in and say no. Why? Because receiving any kind of outside financial assistance, if you are an amateur college athlete, is against the NCAA's rules.
This is, of course, ridiculous. In fact, it is more than ridiculous: it is inhumane. At a certain point, aren't we better off without the NCAA altogether?
Coincidentally, David Berri, of "Wages of Wins" fame sent me a copy of the Presidential address at the Western Social Science Association meeting in Phoenix, this past weekend, by Jim Peach, who teaches at New Mexico State University. Peach's paper is fascinating. (Sadly, I can't find it online. But here's hoping he posts it soon). Peach points out that one of the principal reasons for the NCAA's existence--and for the 500 pages of rules it currently has on the books covering things like recruiting and outside assistance and roster limts and so on (those would be the same books, incidentally, that the NCAA threw at Ramon McElrathbey)--was to insure competitive balance among college teams. The reason you don't let colleges pay their athletes is that you fear that doing so will result in the rich schools getting all the best athletes, and the parity and competitiveness of the sport suffering.
Fair enough. But Peach then analyzes the competitive balance of the big-time college sports and finds that. . . the NCAA has done a terrible job at the very problem it was set up to solve. There is no competitive balance in big-time college athletics. In Division I men's football, for example, over the past fifty years five teams account for a quarter of all top eight finishes, twelve teams account for more than half of all top eight appearances, and twenty-two teams account for three-quarters of all top eight finishes.
Peach then imagines what the world would be like if the NCAA didn't exist. Here is a sampling of some of his conclusions. Does this sound like a better world to you?
.... If there were no NCAA restrictions on financial aid or academic eligibility standards, several things would probably occur. First, alumni would probably donate more to college level athletics programs without the NCAA restrictions. That is, they could donate freely either to the athletes or to the institutions of higher learning with an expectation that the money would be spent to improve their favorite team.
Second, student athletes would probably be paid more than they are paid under the current system. Indeed it is likely that if the NCAA financial restrictions were not in place, colleges and universities would need to compete openly with financial incentives for the services of prospective student athletes.
Third, there is little evidence that the NCAA rules and regulations have promoted competitive balance in college athletics and no a priori reason to think that eliminating the rules would change the competitive balance situation.. Would such price competition alter the distribution of playing talent among academic institutions? No one knows for certain, but it is worth noting that the power schools in football were the power schools before the imposition of NCAA regulations. From an economic perspective, open bidding for athletes is similar to the situation in Major League Baseball (MLB) when the reserve clause was eliminated and the era of free-agency began. Sports economists rely heavily on the Rottenberg invariance principle when analyzing free agency. Essentially, this principle suggests that free agency would not affect the distribution of talent but would affect the distribution of funds between owners and players. There is also the possibility that eliminating the NCAA eligibility and financial restrictions might increase competitive balance, particularly in football. In an unrestricted system, wages for first-team student athletes at non-power schools might be higher than wages for second or third team talent at the power schools. So, it is possible that the distribution of student athlete talent could change.
Fourth, colleges and universities could save a great deal of money. The money cost of participating in the NCAA and in complying with its many regulations is a large but unknown figure. University delegations to NCAA meetings consist of at least an Athletic Director, a university president (since 1997), a faculty representative, and others. In addition, there is the on-going process and associated costs of enforcement and compliance on campus. Even on a relatively small campus, this can involve full-time staff members and faculty over-sight committees.
Fifth, university administrators would be forced to make hard decisions instead of relying on the protective shield of NCAA regulations. What hard decisions? Universities would be forced to establish their own academic eligibility requirements for student athletes.