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Opinion Are amateurism rules corrupting college athletes?

A referee holds a ball during a timeout in the second half of a game between Texas Christian University and West Virginia University on March 10. (Orlin Wagner/Associated  Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about sports fandom. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Phillip Miller is a professor and chair of the department of economics at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

We are nearing the end of the college basketball season, which will culminate in the crowning of national champions. Millions of passionate fans will follow the action in person, on television or via the Internet. These supporters are the lifeblood of college sports. Their devotion and the money they spend help keep these sports viable.

But this passion and willingness to spend also help explain the seamy side of college athletics — the academic and “impermissible benefits” scandals that litter the historical landscape of college athletics, particularly in the major revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball.

Economists describe the demand for a resource as a “derived demand.” That is, the demand for a resource, such as labor, is derived from the demand for the good or service produced by that resource. All else remaining equal, the more value people place on a good, the more valuable the resources that make up the good.

How do we keep sports interesting? By regulating chance.

The scarcity problem faced by any society is that wants and desires are essentially unlimited, but the resources that can satisfy those wants and desires are limited at any point in time. Consequently, resources must somehow be allocated among competing uses. The same can be said of athletic talent; skilled, superior players are a scarce resource that must somehow be rationed. The issue is not whether talent will be rationed and reallocated, but how.

In professional sports leagues with free agency, teams woo players with salary offers, signing bonuses and other forms of compensation. But due to so-called amateurism rules, these forms of payment are not allowed in college athletics. For example, if a player has accepted payment to play a sport or has signed with an agent, that player is considered a professional according to the NCAA and may not play college athletics. As a result, programs have to find other ways to attract elite athletes.

Sometimes these “other ways” involve the construction of palatial playing, practice, dining and residential facilities, or the hiring of head and assistant coaches who are master recruiters. Neither of these “other ways” run afoul of NCAA rules and are understandable given that athletic talent is a scarce resource that cannot be allocated on the basis of salaries or signing bonuses. These methods will undoubtedly be used.

On the other side of the line are under-the-table payments of money or goods and services, as well as the bribing of influential adults in the lives of elite athletes, such as parents or high school coaches. These are impermissible, and the promise of easy classes and programs, which can be used to attract elite athletes who place little value on getting an education, lead to academic scandals.

Even so, impermissible benefits and academic scandals pockmark the college sports landscape like craters on the moon. For the third time in his career and with as many programs, Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown of Southern Methodist University has been penalized by the NCAA for academic misconduct — an administrative assistant was found completing coursework for a student-athlete. The University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Louisville basketball programs have self-imposed bans from postseason play this year for rules violations committed in those programs. But none of these schools will be taking down the nets in Houston this year.

The Syracuse University men’s basketball program had to vacate more than 100 wins and head coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine games because of various NCAA violations. Even the venerable University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was put on probation by its accrediting agency for the academic scandal that enveloped its basketball program recently.

These scandals were embarrassing. But at the margin, if violating an NCAA rule is more beneficial than it is costly (including the expected cost of getting caught), then the rule, whatever it is, will be violated. Vacating wins is mostly a cosmetic penalty, akin to a slap on the wrist, and probably not much of a deterrent. The wins can be taken away on paper, but they cannot be erased from people’s memories.

Penalties that affect revenue streams, such as postseason bans, will have a deterrent effect — but even they can’t be expected to eliminate academic scandals and the giving of impermissible benefits.

There is little doubt that there are many college sports fans, especially alumni, who care deeply about the integrity of their favorite colleges and universities. But given the NCAA’s stance on amateurism, as long as fans care more about wins, losses and championships than how athletes are recruited or whether they are making satisfactory progress toward a degree, scandals will continue to be a part of the college sports landscape.

Explore these other perspectives:

Nicholas Christenfeld: How do we keep sports interesting? By regulating chance.

Nate Drexler: Sports fans, unite: It’s time to go on strike.

Val Ackerman: The religion of March Madness

Marco Iacoboni: The science behind our love for March Madness

Godfrey Chan: A solution to the hypocrisy of the NCAA: Just watch the pros

Tim Bontemps: My alma mater looked to March Madness for validation. We didn’t get it.