The NCAA Says Amateurism Is Necessary for American Olympic Glory, But Is That Fair?

The NCAA says college athletes can't be paid without hurting America's Olympic efforts. If that's true, then football and men's basketball players are paying a tax for Rio Games gold.

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Aug 17 2016, 1:00pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For many Americans, the biggest worry of the Rio Games is how to avoid spoilers—like when NBC waits until after dinner to show the event your Twitter friends were watching online hours ago. But for the small group of dedicated patriots known at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, there is far graver concern: specifically, that future national Olympic glory will be undercut if college football and men's basketball players ever gain the right to negotiate their fair market value.

As nutty as this sounds, we're not making this up. In 2013, the NCAA submitted a legal declaration by former United States Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth arguing that payments to college football and men's basketball athletes "would severely damage American athletes' ability to compete in the Olympic Games and could mean the death of the Olympic movement in the United States." That's right. Death. This is a common refrain among those making lots of money off these athletes—most notably Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who took a break from enjoying his $2.6 million salary two years ago to warn America that market-rate pay in college sports could imperil the country's Olympic efforts.

Read More: Four Years A Student-Athlete: The Racial Injustice Of Big Time College Sports

The college sports establishment's amazing concern-trolling logic over tomorrow's gold medals goes roughly like this:

  • If college football and basketball players get access to their market level of pay, pay will rise above the current capped level of a scholarship plus (in some cases) full cost of school attendance;
  • If pay goes the above goes up, then funding for Division I scholarships in non-revenue sports, like track and field and swimming, will go down;
  • If there are fewer D-I scholarships in Olympic sports, then Team USA will suffer, and soon we'll be like Tonga or Vanuatu, or one of those other tiny countries that you see in the opening ceremonies and then forget about for four years.

Of course, the above assumptions are absurd, and there are many ways to challenge them. First, if athletic departments ended up spending more for elite football and men's basketball players, they could still find money for campus Olympic sports by reducing coach pay, or repurposing athlete performance bonuses that go to athletic directors, or trimming the lawn care budget for the president's residence. They could even raise money from donors specifically for those sports.

Moreover, it's important to understand that Olympic sports are not a break-the-bank proposition for large universities. Athletic department expenditures typically are a tiny portion—a few percentage points, max—of a D-I school's total annual budget. In 2014-15, for example, UCLA claims to have spent $1.6 million on its women's volleyball team, and $6.4 billion overall. Schools like UCLA sponsor plenty of "money-losing" activities outside of the classroom, from concerts to campus security; if they want to offer an Olympic sport, they can.

In addition, it already has been proven that you don't need gargantuan football and basketball profits to support successful other sports. Division II schools (which no one claims are rolling in football profits) manage to sponsor a number of men's and women's sports and send athletes to compete in the Olympics. Heck, VICE Sports readers know that junior colleges send athletes to the Olympics, too—and we're pretty certain no JUCO sports are raking in the big bucks from a sweet television deal.

Still, for argument's sake, let's pretend the NCAA is right. Strip away amateurism, and assume that suddenly Stanford is spending so much money for Heisman Trophy contender Christian McCaffrey that it chooses not to fund the swim program that helped produce Rio Games gold medalist Simone Manuel. Could America somehow prevent a catastrophic Olympic decline?

Well, we could finance our Olympic athletes the way many other countries do: through government dollars. In other words, your taxes.

Right now, amateurism in big-time college football and men's basketball acts as a sort of privately imposed payroll tax on the athletes in those sports. The NCAA basically tells its member schools that once each football or basketball player hits the full cost of attendance at that institution, all additional potential payments must be withheld. This tax is both regressive (it falls disproportionally heavily on poorer people) and racially tinged (it falls disproportionally on non-white athletes). Put more bluntly, it's a tax levied exclusively on a tiny, targeted sliver of predominantly African-American young men, many of whom come from families that have such low income that they qualify for Pell Grants from the federal government.

According to the NCAA's logic, that's simply the price of putting Americans on the Olympic podium. If you want gold, then these guys must give up the green. But what if things were different? What if we did what we usually do when we ask our public schools to provide public goods, and had the taxpayers of each state cover the cost of our campus Olympic sports—to step up and do their patriotic duty rather than foisting that duty on others?

Let's do some basic math. First, take the total listed cost of non-revenue sports scholarships at D-I Bowl Subdivision schools per the Department of Education's data in each state. Next, divide by total taxable employee income in said state. (Note: W-2s only record employee income, so we're excluding independent contractors and partners/owners of business in our rough calculations.)

Once we have that number, we can ballpark the increase in tax percentage each state would need to adopt to cover Olympic costs. Let's consider Alabama, which has five FBS programs: Alabama, Auburn, UAB, Troy, and South Alabama. Our estimate of the total scholarship costs for all sports at those schools other than men's basketball and football based on self-reported list prices—and note that the list price often overstates the actual cost of an athletic scholarship, since scholarships are largely a payment by a university to itself—is $29,581,280. Meanwhile, the total employee (W-2) tax base in Alabama is $78,948,355,200.

So, if we asked all Alabamians with jobs that classify them as employees to step up for Team USA, their tax rates would have to rise by 0.04 percent. For a worker earning $50,000 a year, that would be an extra $18.73; for someone earning $500,000, it would be $187.35. (Remember, this is just a rough estimate, and one that covers all college sports, not just Olympic ones. So the actual cost likely would be even less).

In fact, across the 41 states with FBS programs, not one would require a tax hike greater than a quarter of one percent. Take a look:

Let's go a step further. Assume taxpayers had to fund not only scholarships but also all of the listed costs of non-revenue sports. In Alabama, we find that would require a whopping income tax increase of 0.1 percent. Is that too much to ask for the Stars and Stripes?

By the NCAA's logic, it is. For taxpayers, that is. Not for football and men's basketball players. Remember: without amateurism, the association claims, the American Olympic movement will die. At this point, perhaps you're starting to grasp the most ridiculous—and frankly, pernicious—aspect of college sports economic status quo defenders using Olympians as human shields. Follow the association's argument to its end point, and what you have is hundred or so largely disadvantaged young men at every major football school surrendering the bulk of their potential earnings so that the rest of us can lower our taxes by a few hundredths of a percent. Oh, and also, they don't even get a say in the matter.

When taxation without representation sounds pretty good to you. Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When we levy taxes, we are first supposed to legislate—you know, to avoid that whole taxation-without-representation thing. So imagine that if instead of imposing this Olympic tax on big-time football and basketball players through a non-legislative fiat, we picked your profession. Pretend you're a lawyer in Alabama; now pretend a state representative is proposing a lawyers-only Gold Medal Tax. We calculate that the state would have to raise taxes on law firm employees by 4.92 percent to cover everything. If such a proposal ever came to pass, do you think legal professionals might lobby against it? Similarly, suppose our proposed tax stuck to sports, and was imposed on people who earn their living in Alabama as "coaches and scouts." In that case, their tax rate would increase by 26.2 percent—a steep rise, to be sure, but a pittance when America's Olympic success hangs in the balance.

Of course, maybe you can't get behind the idea of imposing a Gold Medal Tax on lawyers, or coaches, or whatever-you-do-for-a-living, especially without even asking them if they're cool with it. Maybe you think it would be unfair. If that's the case, ask yourself this: Is it any more fair to impose this tax on a group of young men who generally come from low-income families, and already are prohibited from earning almost all kinds of outside income? And to do so without ever holding a vote?

Does that even seem American?

The Rio Games have been a thrilling spectacle. It's fun to watch Team USA kick butt, and thrilling to see a slew of current and former non-revenue sport college athletes achieve glory for themselves and the country. When the NCAA wraps itself in the American flag and insists that denying football and basketball players basic economic rights is necessary to produce Olympic triumphs, it's counting on you to remember that joy—and not to think any further about how the system really works, and what it really costs.

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