Rumors have swirled furiously that Auburn University's standout quarterback, Cam Newton, and his family solicited money from Mississippi State University during the recruiting battle between the two schools for his services. Accepting payments (beyond allowable tuition and room/board scholarship money) is of course prohibited by the NCAA, which is conducting an investigation and has even brought in the FBI to help.
This whole saga has missed the wider issue, namely to what extent rules baring players from being paid are themselves justified. As I argued in an Op Ed for the Wall Street Journal with Richard Vedder in 2009, athletes like Newton are grossly exploited by their colleges and should be allowed payment in the first place.
Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, writing for the Chronicle's Innovations blog, are spot-on in their commentary on the contradictions surrounding the student athlete payment question. They point out that the NCAA's practice of setting salary caps for student athletes across member institutions should be an antitrust violation. Their criticism of Congress's free pass to the NCAA is sharp, saying:
"After considerable thought, we have been able to come up with only one persuasive explanation of the favoritism shown in allowing colleges to agree on limits to athletic merit awards, in contrast to non-athletic merit awards, where the free market is supposed to reign: the people who make, interpret, and enforce the laws in the U.S. really, really like high-end (dare we say semi-pro) college athletics."Baum and McPherson continue and argue that the rules put in place by the NBA and NFL that place age restrictions on athletes to enter their drafts are "conspiracies in the restraint of trade." They are correct to suggest that these restrictions should be eliminated, giving athletes the decision whether college attendance is in their best interest. Doing so would be:
"unambiguously bad for university athletic departments’ bottom lines and coaches’ salaries, and unambiguously bad for professional teams (who might find themselves creating their own minor leagues and actually paying the players in training to learn the game)."All the commotion over Cam Newton misses the larger point that the rule he has allegedly violated is unfair to student-athletes and potentially arguably illegal. The real scandal here is that the NCAA is allowed to violate anti-trust law to exploit the labors of young athletic talents, and that point needs more attention.