Would compensating college players cause athletic departments to go bankrupt? Don’t bet on it.

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by Tim Marchman,

from The Wall Street Journal,

Is there anyone left in America, who’s given the matter any thought, who still thinks college sports can continue as they are? NCAA-style amateurism is an obvious artifice, as our finest universities act more or less like pimps, lining their pockets and moaning whenever anyone threatens to cut in on their territory. But what to do about it?

Part of the problem is the amount of straight-out nonsense surrounding college sports and how they operate.

Everyone, for example, knows the revenue from big football programs underwrites all the other, smaller sports, right? Actually, no. Rodney Fort of the University of Michigan and Jason Winfree of the University of Iowa have looked at the available books for all FBS and FBC schools—the ones with the major football programs, formerly known as Divisions I-A and I-AA—and concluded that at only a handful does money from the so-called revenue sports (football and men’s basketball) actually cover the expenses of other sports plus departmental expenses.

There is much concern, the authors note in “15 Sports Myths and Why They’re Wrong,” that paying college football players would kill the golden goose that pays for lacrosse and other sports that don’t make a lot of money. But, they write, “there is no golden goose in the first place.”

Establishing this simple fact is just one of the valuable services performed by Messrs. Fort and Winfree—who profess agnosticism, interestingly, on the question of whether college athletes should be paid.

But it’s their treatment of college sports that, if taken seriously, would lead shortly to the complete reform of the system.

Those who object to change in college sports generally present vague appeals to tradition. But you also hear a set of practical concerns. Paying players, or even allowing them to profit from the use of their names and likenesses, would, the line goes, bankrupt athletic departments, and create a drag on overall university budgets. Messrs. Fort and Winfree show this doesn’t hold up if you think about it, let alone apply any kind of economic analysis to it.

Likewise, the claim that abolishing amateurism would create a drag on general school budgets doesn’t hold up.

Ideally universities and major spectator sports would probably have nothing to do with one another, but this isn’t an ideal world and the two aren’t going to divorce. Given that, there is going to be debate over the nature of that relationship, and it may as well be founded on facts. For any athlete, fan or federal judge interested in learning them, this book is a good place to start.

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