Capitalism, Conservatism, and College Athletes


I don’t like to make broad claims about human behavior without sufficient research, but certain things need only pass the eye test. Years of diligently collected anecdotal evidence tell me that there’s a significant overlap between those who oppose raising the minimum wage and those who oppose efforts to compensate revenue-generating collegiate athletes. Most of these people would call themselves capitalists. They would argue that mutually beneficial wage scales can be determined through the laws of supply and demand, and that increases in minimum wage would favor well-established corporations over cash-poor startups. Whether or not one agrees with these arguments, they are consistent with the capitalist idea that two parties engaged in negotiation can arrive at more desirable outcomes than a third party could possibly impose.

Then there’s the college issue. Plenty of capitalists recoil at the “Commie BS” notion of college athletes getting paid with more than just a full-ride scholarship. When Northwestern University football players took their first step toward challenging the unpaid status of college athletes, it was a move that involved unionization, a word whose very mention alerts capitalists to round up their pitchforks and gather in the village square. The players in Division I football programs offer valuable labor, but have their wages (or lack thereof) imposed by a third party: the NCAA, which itself is a collective of mostly state-run institutions. Why don’t these players deserve to have the economic worth of their skills determined by supply and demand, just like everyone else?

The issue is that most capitalists also tend to be conservatives, a phrase which here means “people who want to do shit the way we’ve always done it.” “Conservative” is actually a bit of a misnomer for the modern-day right wing; many want to see radical economic reforms that bear little resemblance to the prevailing policies of American history. However, conservatives’ tendencies toward patriotism and religiosity mean that tradition still holds an allure, no matter where it stands in relation to other beliefs. The case of the college athlete invites a conflict between trusting the marketplace and maintaining tradition. For too many conservatives, it’s hard to stomach the idea of the ol’ Maize and Blue getting market-driven salaries instead of just gettin’ a good schoolin’. Playing for “the love of the game” while pursuing an education is supposed to make the college athlete more honorable and perhaps more relatable to students and alumni. But guess what, Mr. 5’6″, 150-pound Georgetown law student? You don’t have anything in common with Roy Hibbert, and depriving him of pay for four year didn’t bring you guys closer together.

The other reason conservatives haven’t jumped on board with paying college athletes is that the cause has been championed by the sorts of bleeding-heart liberals who use words like “exploitation” and “fair.” Aside from their need to automatically oppose anything embraced by the other side (a sin of which liberals are equally guilty), conservatives think of these efforts as newfangled Marxism, just because they involve amplifying the voices of people in disadvantaged positions. But isn’t that exactly what anti-Communist efforts have always been about?

Let’s recap: NCAA football and basketball players perform labor that reaps billions of dollars in profits annually. The compensation they receive includes nary a cent of actual cash. The value of their scholarship has nothing to do with the supply and demand of their labor, and the individual athlete has no ability to negotiate this value (which, if the degree of choice is in the ever-popular fields of criminal justice or sociology, may be close to $0). Can you imagine what would happen if doctors or lawyers were compensated this way? It would look a lot like what happened in East Germany right around the time when Syracuse’s Pearl Washington was on his way to surefire NBA stardom. It’s time to give college athletes access to the spoils of capitalism, even if it means giving up the delusion that Jameis Winston will have an economics degree to fall back on.