Wednesday was college football’s National Signing Day, and amid the hype, rush-to-judgement class rankings and whirring fax machines working overtime — a quarter-century from now, I imagine, campus coaches will have graduated to using ultra-modern BlackBerries to secure player commitments — one common sentiment stuck in my craw.
Look at all these kids getting free educations!
No. No. A thousand times no. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief — just Google NCAA athletes free education — there is absolutely nothing free about a college athletic scholarship. Nothing. Did I mention nothing? Good.
To illustrate, let’s try a thought exercise involving two scenarios. Both take place at a supermarket.
Scenario No. 1: A fruit vendor standing behind a temporary display kiosk offers you a sample slice of mango in a small paper cup. You are free to eat it. Or not. You’re free to buy mangoes. Or not. In exchange for the mango slice, you’re required to do … zilch.
Scenario No. 2: A fruit vendor standing behind a temporary display kiosk offers you a sample slice of mango in a small paper cup, contingent on you mopping the floor around said kiosk. If you quit mopping because of injury, disinterest or because you need to focus all your attention on mango-eating, the sample slice will be withdrawn and given to someone else who is better at mopping.
Colleges are fruit vendors. Sample slices are tuition, room and board. Mopping is playing sports. Scenario No. 1 describes many types of college scholarships, in which schooling is provided as a gift; Scenario No. 2 describes the quid pro quo of athletic scholarships, in which schooling is exchanged for on-field services rendered. Believe it or not, these are entirely different arrangements — and only the former qualifies as “free.”
If I buy you a six-pack of beer but demand that you wash my car while drinking it, are the suds free?
If I order you a pizza but require you to babysit my kids while eating it, is your dinner free?
If I allow you to matriculate at my university without paying for credit hours, so long as you spend 40 hours a week studying game film, lifting weights, practicing route-running, traveling to and from stadiums and playing in games that earn my school millions of dollars in revenue and marketing exposure, is your education free?
I bring this up, of course, because it cuts to the core of the ongoing argument over amateurism and college sports — an argument that was stoked anew last week after Northwestern football players launched a bid for labor unionization. The players essentially are arguing that they perform work for their school and therefore should be treated as student employees, with commensurate labor law rights and protections; the NCAA and its members counter that college football players do not perform work and instead are students who just happen to play sports.
Key to the NCAA’s position — legally, philosophically and in the all-important court of public opinion — is the underlying notion that college athletes are getting something for nothing. That they are the recipients of a “free” education. After all, if college sports is nothing more than an enormous charitable enterprise — a coast-to-coast Christmas tree shining brightly above ribbon-wrapped boxes of tuition, room and board — then there’s no reason to view it as an exploitative market in which a cartel of schools conspires to deny its on-field workforce basic economic rights.
On Twitter, former college basketball player-turned-analyst Doug Gottlieb nicely summed up this view while reacting to the Northwestern news:
The greatest gift you can receive in the world is a free college experience/education — the need for a greater gift is sickening
Gottlieb has a point: If college athletes were receiving truly free educations, like mango slices at a supermarket, then their demands for a greater say over the terms of said educations might be sickening. Or, at the very least, woefully misguided. After all, a truly free education would mean … no terms. Because that’s how “free” works. Only that’s not the case in college sports. Scholarships are not gifts. They are price-fixed compensation for athletic performance. You want the mango? Grab a mop. And don’t even think about asking for steak instead. When Gottlieb is done brushing the vomit out of his teeth, he should try gifting himself an economics textbook. The NCAA’s amateur system does not support free education, any more than it supports a free market.