The Price of ‘Free’

Northwestern quarterback Kaine Colter is leading the charge for NCAA football players to unionize. (USA TODAY Sports)

Northwestern quarterback Kaine Colter is leading the charge for NCAA football players to unionize. (USA TODAY Sports)

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of injury, disinterest or because you need to focus all your attention on mango-eating, the sample slice will be withdrawn and given to someone else who is better at mopping.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.

9 thoughts on “The Price of ‘Free’

  1. Speaking of free, why are athletes not free to move from one school to another? Charlie Strong received a better offer from Texas this year and was free to move without sitting out a year. If you’re a WR at San Jose St. and you have a breakout year while keeping your grades up, and Stanford offers you a opportunity to continue your education at a more prestigious school why can’t you go? How is that different from what Strong is doing?

    • The rule is in place to protect schools/coaches from themselves. If a poached player has to sit out a year, sucking up a scholarship while not playing, there’s a counter incentive to the poaching. Strong, never having been anyone’s property, um, scholarship recipient, can’t, by definition, be poached.

  2. I agree athletes probably deserve more, but your post is just completely asinine. Your analogies make absolutely zero sense.

    You also focus on the education part. They also get housing, and food, and access to the best facilities on Earth for football players to prepare themselves for the NFL.

    And you only focused on revenue-generating athletes. What about a women’s basketball player (who doesn’t play for UConn) – they bring in zero dollars but get $40,000+ annually in tuition. Where do they fall?

    It’s a complex issue and you tried to be oversimplistic about it and you failed miserably, which is why people are destroying you on Twitter.

    “When Gottlieb is done brushing the vomit out of his teeth, he should try gifting himself an economics textbook. ”

    Absurdly over-the-top and poorly worded. But maybe you can more that book after he’s done??

    • What part of Hruby’s analogies do you fail to understand? He is simply stating that their is no free ride. A football player works 40+ hours a week to earn the school money. He is promised an education – basket weaving (Not useful but most college football players cannot handle college work and those that can simply have little time or coach will fire them.) The medical costs of serving your football coach last a lifetime.

      You point regarding Title IX is well taken. If colleges monetize the revenue producing teams by spinning them off, they no longer need to offer an as many scholarships to female athletes since they have eliminated football.

      Stop with the NFL fantasy. 300 guys get picked up each year out of 20000 eligible college seniors. Average career 3 to 4 years with a median salary of 600K. Good money but after taxes and lifetime of medical costs you end up in the poor house.

      • This is a great response. Touches everything I was going to say, and probably says it better.

  3. Nobody cares.

    I don’t write that to diminish your argument. I write that because it’s a simple truth behind all of college athletics. NOBODY cares.

    Nearly all the people within the system are going to argue in favor of the system because it keeps them employed, and a lot of them probably like their jobs. You’ll find exceptions, like Steve Spurrier arguing for players to get a piece of the SEC Network action, but he can afford to make such an argument — one which is destined to fall on deaf ears — because he’s been so enriched by the system over decades that losing his job over such a quote isn’t such a big deal to him. The fact that he’s good enough to find work elsewhere doesn’t hurt, either.

    As for the people outside the system… well, they just want to watch the games. What’s more, they have these connections to schools that they attended — and some that they didn’t — which go deeper than most connections to any professional teams. That helps to fuel this system and keep it going. Auburn fans don’t care if Chris Davis’ studies might be slipping(1) because he has to spend 40 hours or more per week on football. They just want to see him return that missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown.

    College football has this huge legacy in America. It was filling stadiums back when the NFL was struggling to survive. That’s part of the reason why the NFL never created a minor league. They probably knew it would fail, because COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS WHAT THE FANS WANT, and fans will gladly buy into the lie of the student-athlete if it means they can flaunt their tribal colors and laugh at their rivals when they’re down. To paraphrase Jim Valvano, the games mean nothing, but they mean everything.

    Another thing to keep in mind: Thanks to ESPN, college sports make for better television than minor league sports. MiLB teams still do okay; more than half the teams in the AAA International League and Pacific Coast League draw more than 7,000 per game on average. But try putting a Columbus Clippers v. Durham Bulls game on TV and see what kind of ratings you get. Likewise, try telling people that the quality of basketball is better overall in the D-League than in the NCAA. People won’t see it. They might tune into a D-League game on CBSSN, but they’ll instantly compare the atmosphere of that half-empty arena to the atmosphere at any televised Duke, Michigan State, or Kansas game, and the level of play won’t matter to them.

    Tons of factors have brought us to this point. It’s pretty much up to players to do something about it, because from the looks of it, nobody else will.

    (1) I have absolutely no clue what Chris Davis’ grades might be. I’m just using him as an example here, because everybody remembers THAT PLAY.

    • You makes a lot of points, but miss the point completely. The Northwestern players do care. If they get a positive ruling, it will change things for a lot of players. You’re right that the fans don’t care. If players get more protections and if some of them eventually get paid, fans will still watch. What’s important is to end the student-athlete myth and allow these kids to find their market value. They don’t get a free education and what’s wrong is wrong.

  4. Great comment by what you pay for sports and spot on. The Nobody Cares attitude of collegiate sports fans prevents college sports from being a tool with which we can view larger societal issues. A few weeks ago a study showed that 1 in 5 college students are sexually assaulted. Shortly after that, it comes to light that the kicker for the University of Michigan football team was expelled by the school for sexual misconduct. His eligibility had just expired. Unfortunately, rather than the story leading to a discussion on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses or on UofM’s backward policy on investigating such crimes that was in place until August 2013, the debate quickly devolved into tribalism. Fans of other Universities often gloated while many UofM fans reflexively defended the school (attacked the victim) or said your school does the same. Rather than learn from this fiasco and apply those lessons to protect women across the country, Nobody Cares. And if UofM has a winning season, all of this will be quickly forgotten (heck it’ll probably be forgotten if they have a losing season). Whether it’s the canard of a free education or ignoring a rape, Nobody Cares.

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