All Commentary
Monday, December 26, 2016

College Players Flee Socialist Athletics for Capitalist NFL

It's not betrayal; it's wholly rational


The college bowl season is in full swing. Some call it the most wonderful week of the year.

LSU, Stanford, and Baylor are among the teams playing this week. But for LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, and Baylor running back Shock Linwood, their collegiate careers are over. When their teams take the field, instead of their usual view from the backfield, Fournette, McCaffrey, and Linwood will be watching from the sidelines.

Each has chosen to voluntarily skip his respective bowl game.

As NFL-bound prospects with potential millions to lose if seriously injured before draft day 2017, economic calculation came barreling in like the defensive lineman, linebackers, and secondary that this trio faced each Saturday.

These players chose tangible NFL future earnings – indeed life-altering money – over any of the intangibles associated with collegiate athletics: enjoyment of a final game with teammates, the opportunity to represent their universities one last time, or the possibility of a decisive performance in a victory to advance their namesake with their alma mater.

Central Planners at the NCAA

Over the past week-plus, these decisions to sit over play have echoed across both the college and professional football landscapes, attracting supporters, detractors, and a whole lot of controversy.

But, more importantly and not as well-reported or maybe even understood, these decisions have revealed the socialist disincentives of collegiate athletics versus the market incentives of private professional sports and how a player’s subjective value navigates these two very different worlds.

Guided by a central planning committee known as the NCAA, this arbitrary-rule making authority attempts to override basic tenets of human action, and in so doing creates mass disincentives for student athletes in collegiate athletics.

The NCAA’s rules ask us to imagine that any given college team is not made up of individuals with varying aptitudes, skills, and productivity. For instance, from a college team’s lowliest player on athletic scholarship to the team’s star (assuredly on scholarship as well), there is no market-coordinating system to reward high achievement.

A scholarship that covers tuition, room, and board plus a small stipend may be commensurate compensation for the athlete with the lowest marginal productivity. But for the team’s star, whose efforts may single-handedly lead to higher ticket and merchandising sales for the university, he or she receives the exact same compensation for high marginal productivity.

Pay Everyone But Athletes?

Players are fed up with the college athletics system.Hamstrung by no less than the NCAA commissar’s decree, the team’s star will share in exactly zero percent of this increased revenue that he or she is directly responsible for. In an era of skyrocketing salaries for athletic directors, coaches, and professional athletes, how patient will the professional-bound college athlete be to remain an amateur?

How long will they tolerate going without present compensation and increased fulfillment of present needs and wants from the money they could have obtained? In other words, how strong is their time preference for the present versus the future?

An athlete’s subjective value answers these questions. In his treatise, Man, Economy, and State, the great economist Murray Rothbard wrote, “the individual’s value scale provides the key to the determination of all events on the market.”

Indeed. And in economics, it matters not what individuals think. It matters what they do that displays their value scale in action.

In skipping their bowl games, Fournette, McCaffrey, and Linwood have displayed that their value scales rank future earnings over a final collegiate game and risk of injury that may impair these future earnings. While only time will tell if skipping bowl games will be a new trend for NFL-bound athletes, trends over the last decade show that underclassmen – individuals skipping an entire year of college eligibility – declaring for the NFL draft has more than doubled over this time period.

Capitalist Sports Beats Socialist Sports

Despite the path to stardom and riches in professional sports hardly guaranteed, the number of athletes who forego present satisfactions to pursue what they perceive is even greater opportunity in the future is indicative of incentives colliding with human action.

If university revenues increase courtesy of athletics while high-caliber athletes remain mired in a socialist collective existence, devoid of the opportunity for a market-based compensation, high-performing college athletes may increasingly look to the market of professional sports sooner.