The quickest way to make a rich white guy sound like a Marxist is to ask him why he is against paying college athletes. As the NCAA tournament has taken center stage this month, the topic has emerged as a hot-button issue, and the defenders of the NCAA parade a series of ridiculous arguments. Last July, Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 conference, unleashed one of the most common arguments against paying college athletes: “It is hard to justify paying student athletes in football and men’s basketball and not recognizing the significant effort that swimmers and wrestlers and lacrosse players and track athletes all put in.”
Bowlsby continued, “Football and basketball players don’t work any harder than anybody else; they just happen to have the blessing of an adoring public who is willing to pay for the tickets and willing to buy the products on television that come with the high visibility.”
As Andy Schwartz of deadspin.com pointed out, this justification only fits in the framework of a Marxist labor theory, which asserts that a commodity is only as valuable as the amount of labor which requires to create it.
What Bowlsby really is arguing against is capitalism. Of course Bowlsby is right that it is arbitrary that the labor of Ohio State Football star J.T. Barrett is more valuable in the marketplace than that of Maddy Humphrey, who led the Buckeyes’ field hockey squad in goals this year, or even the countless student athletes at Wittenberg who work equally hard to produce their labor. But is it any more arbitrary than the marketplace valuing Bowlsby’s — who collects a salary of 1.8 million dollars — labor more than that of a sanitation worker? I do not think it is going out on a limb to say that the average sanitation worker works harder, waking up at dawn to do the unpleasant work of keeping our communities clean. However, Bowlsby never suggests that the solution to alleviating this inequity is forcing him to preform his labor for free.
While it would take major societal, political and economic changes to address labor market inequities on a large scale, as long as labor market exists, we should allow elite athletes to reap their benefits — just as wealthy executives.
The NCAA is the most egregious example of labor market manipulation in sport, but is far from the only one. Major League Baseball allows teams to unilaterally set salaries for players during the first two years of their careers. The NBA, NFL and NHL set a limit on the amount of money teams spend on players’ salaries, and the NHL and NBA have “max contracts” that place limits on the amount a player can be paid.
A central tenant of liberal theory holds that individuals have the right to the product of their own labor. This notion undergrids many right-wing arguments in modern political discourse, whether it be justifying Wall Street compensation or railing against raising the minimum wage. This strict adherence to liberal market principles, however, disappears when the wealthy owners of professional sports teams purchase the labor of professional athletes. What the divergence from market principal in sports demonstrates is that the right wing does not exist to protect market principles — but rather, the right-wing uses liberal theory to protect well-to-do concentrated interests, which align more with the owners of professional sports teams and the NCAA than with the largely African-American labor force.
In an ideal world, workers would not be reliant on the whims of the labor market for subsistence. But while we await that world, we should not disregard the collusion between sports executives that allow them to artificially depress the salaries of athletes. While certainly no one is entitled to the wealth generated by sports in this country, the athletes who tirelessly work on their craft — who share all of the joy of the human experience with the fans — are more entitled than the owners.