[John Morton is author of Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics and many other works. He has a long career teaching economics and training teachers how to teach economics. In the post below, he essentially asks us why we continue to treat athletes as unpaid workers.--JBW]
By John Morton
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the biggest amateur sports event of the year. It’s amateur because the teams represent universities although everyone makes money except the players.
I confess to being excited about March madness. Nevertheless, I ponder some questions about the event. How did big-time sports become an important mission of universities? What are the benefits and costs of these programs? What are the ethical and economic lessons to be learned from making collegiate athletics such a visible face of the higher-education landscape? March madness qualifies as a teachable moment.
High school and college athletics developed as an unintended consequence of the American emphasis on sports. In his 1997 book Windy City Wars, Gerald Gems researched athletics in Chicago as an example of the development of sports. In the late 1800s, Chicago was a diverse city of first- and second-generation immigrants, and many of them held on to their ethnic and national values and traditions. A goal of the early 20th century progressives was to forge these diverse values and traditions into a more homogeneous society. Sports was a vehicle to accomplish this. During this time, Chicago had thousands of sports clubs in multiple leagues with changing regulations. An unintended consequence of this system was corruption. Amateur teams played with professional players called “ringers.” There was illegal betting, and many games were “fixed.” The progressives decided that moving athletics to the schools would clean up this mess. Interscholastic athletic programs were born, and they would also become corrupt. Over the years there have been successful and unsuccessful attempts to improve the integrity of high school and collegiate sports through state athletic associations and national associations such as the NCAA.
College and high school sports programs have positive virtues such as teaching teamwork, improving physical development, and building school spirit. Sports provide a sense of equality and a lack of class consciousness. Advocates of Division I basketball and football claim success in college athletics increases institutions’ name recognition, number of applications, and donations.
The critics’ answer is “at what cost?” For example, in 2014 only 24 of 231 Division I football programs had a profit. Sports programs are subsidized by student fees, public funds, and donations that specifically target athletics. Increased funding for athletics decreases funding for academics. An emphasis on athletics interferes with the core values of a university such as academic teaching and research. Finally, the entire big-time sports programs are built on the exploitation of the athletes, who are not paid.
In an open letter to his alma mater, Rutgers, published in the New York Times on April 12, 1998, Milton Friedman urged the school to drop big-time sports. He wrote, “It is not the purpose of a university to generate publicity or stimulate sports. As you no doubt recall, Chicago was a football powerhouse before Robert Maynard Hutchens dropped the sport. As you know, it hardly harmed the university’s academic standards.
There’s more to say on this issue, but now I must get back to filling out my brackets.