In an article posted today at Nader.org, Ralph Nader proposed that athletic scholarships be eliminated in order to save the nature of collegiate athletics from the pressure of ever-encroaching professionalism:

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the NCAA’s Final Four draws near, League of Fans, a Ralph Nader sports reform project, today called for our nation’s colleges and universities to take a bold step toward restoring academic integrity in intercollegiate sports by eliminating the athletic scholarship.

“As we near the exciting conclusion of ‘March Madness’ — which would more accurately be described as the 2011 NCAA Professional Basketball Championships — it’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball in this country,” said League of Fans founder, Ralph Nader. “By eliminating the athletic scholarship, and replacing it with need-based financial aid, we could de-professionalize college athletes, reestablish athletic departments as part of the educational institution, and be able to use the term “student-athlete” without snickering.”

It’s interesting that Nader chooses the NCAA basketball tournament to make a statement about the sham of amateurism in the NCAA.  Of the two money sports in collegiate athletics (football and basketball), basketball is far and away less influenced by the scam of paying players nothing except a scholarship when they generate millions in revenue, mostly because, as I pointed out in a previous post, the NBA does not collude with the NCAA to keep kids in amateur status if their play is worthy of compensation.  The NBA has no policy against hiring players right out of high school if they are good enough to play, unlike the NFL, which won’t touch a player until his junior season is completed. 

In college football, the NCAA stands on the NFL’s shoulders, sticking a finger in the dyke it has built for the purpose of diverting the flow of money to its member institutions, instead of allowing the cash to wash over the players like it wishes to.  The NCAA couldn’t get away with its sham amateurism in football were it not for the NFL’s support.

But, I don’t much see how eliminating the athletic scholarship would clean up the fraud.  The prescription for problems caused by too little money reaching the people who generate it is not to further decrease the amount of money they receive.   That’s about as ridiculous as the Fed thinking that the prescription for problems caused by too-low interest rates in the housing markets is to further decrease interest rates.  But, like most policy wonks that steadfastly believe the cure for all problems is just better policy, and who accordingly believe a more powerful governing mechanism is the antidote for every ailment, Nader (and the Fed) thinks that the sweep of economic tides can be commanded by the collective, be it the collective enterprise of money-printing or the collective of NCAA governance.  Instead, the economic tsunami inevitably sweeps over and inundates the best-intentioned of programs.  It’s happening now in the housing market with its near-collapse of late, and will happen if the NCAA  attempts to save amateurism by eliminating athletic scholarships.

Nader proposes that in lieu of athletic scholarships, the “student-athletes” be given financial aid.  Which is really a distinction without a difference, except that financial aid is more open-ended.  I could imagine a scenario where the NCAA member institutions start granting financial aid according to athletic ability (which Nader says shouldn’t be a criteria at all), and devise some very generous “aid” packages specifically to lure the student athlete to their school.  It could make amateurism even a bigger lie than it is now. 

Nader offers two scenarios for the future, picking the one least likely to succeed:

It’s time to end the lie that is big-time college athletics today. To do so, we’re left with two choices: 1) Integrate athletics – and athletes – into the educational mission of colleges and universities by eliminating athletic scholarships – along with special admissions for college athletes; or 2) Openly acknowledge the professionalism in big-time college sports, remove the tax-exempt status currently given to athletic departments, and make universities operate them as unrelated businesses — apart from their educational mission.

The League of Fans believes it’s worth supporting the first option.

“It’s time for our college athletes to be true students on campus, not athletes on athletic stipends with sports – not education – as their top priority and obligation,” says Nader.

I’d say eliminating the tax-deductible status of college athletic programs alone would help tremendously.  How many millions extra are funneled into college athletics because of the tax-deductibility of contributions?  Tickets for big-time college football are priced well-below market value, but are only available by paying a tax-deductible ransom to the school athletic’s department.   It’s a big, tax-evading, scam-within-a-scam.

But removing the restrictions on openly paying players would do the rest.  Sometimes the answer to a flood isn’t plugging holes in the dyke.  Sometimes the answer is tearing down the dyke and letting the flood waters roll on in.  Imagine Cam Newton’s dad not having to wait til his son goes pro to legally wallow in a green tide of money because of his son’s athletic prowess.

Making the schools operate their athletic programs as unrelated businesses is another distinction without a difference, so long as the tax deduction is eliminated along with the prohibition against paying players.  If all that’s done, there wouldn’t be any need to eliminate athletic scholarships unless the school just wished to do so. 

Incidentally, eliminating athletic scholarships for the money sports would have a huge impact on female, i.e., money-losing, sports.  Female athletic scholarships in soccer, gymnastics, softball, etc., are mandated by Title IX if the school gives out athletic scholarships to males.   It’s half the reason for intercollegiate female sports, and half the reason, as Nader observes, so much money is wasted on camps and traveling teams, etc., during a child’s formative years–to garner one of those college scholarships doled out to females.  The money sports take care of themselves in that regard.  Kids with potential to be talented football and basketball players are almost never overlooked, never mind their family’s financial situation. 

To summarize, Nader does a decent enough identifying the symptom–that NCAA amateurism is a fraud if money is being made by selling television rights to watch the NCAA’s “amateurs” compete.   Good liberal that he is, Nader gets the problem, and therefore the prescription, wrong.  (Why is it that people who most believe in centralized, i.e., government solutions to problems so rarely understand even what is the problem?)  The problem is not athletic scholarships being doled out, but is quite the opposite.  It is that athletic scholarships don’t even come close to equitably compensating a kid for playing a sport that generates millions for his school.  The prescription for solving the fraud of amateurism that the NCAA has become is to tear down the legal dyke against playing players.  It would end the proliferation of stories like Cam Newton’s (which we haven’t heard the end of yet) and protect the integrity of the games, which,  by extension would help protect what little integrity is left of the universities that sponsor teams competing in them.

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