Athletes Are Still Underpaid

August 22nd, 2020 by 

On Monday, we convinced you guys that the NCAA is an unneeded organization.  That's pretty uncontroversial nowadays, and even though I first argued against the NCAA (and argued athletes are underpaid) back in 2011 you still might think I'm hopping on the bandwagon.   I'm not - I'm here to discuss the concept of amateur status, and tell you how it's bad for young athletes in a critical time of their careers.

Yes, I'm arguing (again) we should pay athletes more - and in the case of college athletes?  More than $0.

On Double Standards and Amateur Status

Let's talk about double standards.

It would be an understatement to say that the whole idea of unpaid internships has been under attack in America.  (See here, here, here).  As that last piece in the WSJ (possibly snarkily) points out, it's all part of the new in vogue intern rights movement.  Perhaps I should rephrase and call it in "Vogue, as Condé Nast is one company in the cross-hairs over not paying interns.  Let me summarize: Condé Nast was sued by two interns at two of their publications over earning "less than minimum wage".  (Yes, that's how an unpaid internship works).

The arguments against unpaid interns... you've heard them all before.  They discriminate against the poor since only the rich can afford to subsidize the unpaid internships of their children.  They are exploitative of labor.  They are less than the minimum wage.  They don't lead to full time jobs.  They are a horrible option for a demographic that doesn't know any better.

Well, we're no fans of the minimum wage here at DQYDJ (if you want to argue it's just a reaction to the minimum wage laws already in effect).  However, we'll cede some of the above points.  We're also not huge fans of first person narrative, but let us channel our inner Hunter S. since we once also worked for free:

Interns are generally pretty useless.  I worked an unpaid internship one summer (one day a week) for a friend of my father's, doing unit testing on a piece of software.  I had never done any unit testing in my life, and ramping me up to being able to test the code occupied precious engineering and development time.  It would be fair to say that yes, I gained more from the relationship than I could provide, at least in the beginning - even if it was just measured by the time I offset from the lead engineer.

How old was I?  Glad you asked - I was in High School.  Every single job I worked from that day forward, including my technical internships in an IT department at a local college and my software engineering internship for a well known (and still existing) defense contractor, were paid.

So, if you're keeping score, I lost my amateur status in High School.

Jokes about brain damage caused by racking your brain as a software engineering or journalism intern aside, there is little damage you can do to your body sitting in a cubicle.  Yeah, without proper care you can look forward to caffeine addiction, 20 extra pounds around your waist, poor posture and arthritis in your hands but the slightly elevated risk of health problems from cube-work can be ameliorated.  (Except maybe that "sitting too much thing" - we'll see how it shakes out.)

Now, look at the absurdity that is college sports.  You have a Congressionally mandated monopoly in the NCAA and NFL/NBA pipeline which exists specifically to exploit (generally poor) student athletes.

In engineering, no one will pay millions of dollars to watch a young coder produce code - but youth is a major factor in the value of an athlete.  Even with the best doctors, workout regimes, and diets in the entire world (not to mention the age-defying drugs), sports takes a toll on the human body which follows a very painful arc (one example for football).  Since we wrote our piece in 2011, football has had an even brighter spotlight shined on it due to the risks of repeated small head injuries.  Head hits, by the way, often start around age 5-8 for eventual pro football players!  Amateur status, indeed.

Again, pounding on keys might give you arthritis, but any insanity from a desk job can't be blamed on symptoms of a physical problem - it's on you, pal.

Amateur Status: Picture of a keyboard from Morgue File.

"We can pay you to code, but if you want to irreversibly destroy your brain you have to do it for free!"

With that in mind, let's enter the bizarro world of "internships" for football student athletes.

Amateur Status: The Worst Deal Imaginable

Imagine an unpaid internship that you took because, well, you didn't have any other options.  In this internship, you must start when you are 5-8 years old and stay unpaid until you are around 21 years old if you want to even have a shot at a job.  In the last three years of your internship, you are forced to attend classes which have no bearing on whether or not you get your dream job.  For those same three years, rich alumni from your chosen organization will watch you play your heart out and spend millions of dollars which will go to that organization and to other affiliated organizations... but not you or your family.  Your payment?  You might get free room and board and a University Studies degree, and (if you're lucky) most of your meals will be provided.

Only 1,856 people maximum can even get one of the jobs you're seeking.  You will be competing with hundreds of thousands of others in attempt to grab one of the spots.  If you do get it, you'll make at least $405,000 a year.  Most will never make it - those that do only average a career length less than 7 years long.  If you're injured during your internship: tough luck, kid - maybe you can work at The Athlete's Foot.  Most of your peers will get injured at some point in the process.

Sound fair?  Now imagine all of the above, PLUS you get hit in the head hundreds of time every week from when you're around 8 years old.  Now imagine suddenly the rules change - you have to intern a 3rd year and can't take it off even if you did everything you needed in two yearsYou can't even escape through the courts.  The only employer that employs you and your peers has a blessing from your country in the form of an exemption from anti-trust laws so long as it doesn't compete with the rules of the 'amateur' unions.

Does that sound like a fair system?

You can see I'm no fan of the NCAA/NFL monopoly on the work of football players.  Any increase in the difficulty for players to qualify is a joke - forcing people to be placed in stasis with regards to wages is one of the worst things we do to our young athletes.  Currently, NFL rules state a player must wait 3 years out of High School - and, realistically, the only way to have an NFL shot is to go to a Division I-A Football School.

If the NCAA was a person, wouldn't you want to punch it in the face?

Contrast the circus around the basketball and football draft with the less-restricted baseball and hockey drafts (and their eligibility).

Tell me... is there some major difference that makes it okay to draft younger hockey and baseball players?  Why are there no complaints that Michelle Wie was too immature (if not too young!) when she went pro in golf at 15?  Is there really a difference in the maturity of young golf players (let alone baseball and hockey) versus the maturity of basketball and football players?

If you do think the current system is okay, I'd love to hear the demographic argument for punishing basketball and football players, but not enforcing the same restrictions for hockey and baseball players.

Oh, you think there's a counterargument?  I'll raise you, since the NBA actually did at one point allow High Schoolers to be drafted (the horror!):

  • Moses Mallone
  • Darryl Dawkins
  • Shawn Kemp
  • Kevin Garnett
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Jermaine O'Neal
  • LeBron James
  • Dwight Howard
  • Tyson Chandler
  • Amar'e Stoudemire
  • Andrew Bynum
  • Monta Ellis

Wow, what an immature group - no hall-of-famers there!

The NCAA Trolls the Country With the Amateur Status Meme

Newsflash: outside of wrestling and boxing, the United States and the rest of the world hasn't cared about amateur status since 1972.

1972, of course, refers to the retirement of the President of the International Olympic Committee's Avery Brundage, who was militantly opposed to professionalism in Olympic sports.  Of course, that gave communist countries a leg up - athletes could have sham job titles like "policeman", while being funneled cash and resources to train for the Olympics.  In Brundage's words, athletes should compete "for the love of the game itself without thought of reward or payment of any kind".  How quaint!

Of course, a few hundred years ago there was no opportunity for athletes to make money, or at least not more than their coworkers.  "Coworkers?".  Yeah - centuries ago, today's athletes would be soldiers, often through conscription.

It is only in the lifetime of the last few generations that men and women have had the ability to be paid to entertain us mere mortals by being unbelievably good at sports.  This reality was acknowledged in the lightening of Olympic restrictions on pro athletes after 1972 (that doesn't reflect poorly on Caitlyn née Bruce Jenner and his self-motivation in Decathlon training at San Jose City College; respect, my friend!).  In the US, that, of course, culminated with our utter domination of the rest of the world when the NBA sent the best basketball team ever assembled (plus Christian Laettner) to school the rest of the world with our crushing professional basketball talent.

The Olympics realized that amateurism, like the gold standard, is a barbarous relic, and that 'amateur status' is a useless sop to sanctimonious hypocrites and connotes no advantages to those who hold it.

Nowadays, 'amateur' merely means a person is really good at the wrong sport.

Here's the other thing: top schools have been flaunting the NCAA's rules for years.  By one count, fully 20% of schools are on the NCAA's probation list - which just means the other 80% (well, according to Cameron, 79.2% - Notre Dame would never break any rules) haven't been caught yet.  And how much money are we talking?  ESPN compiled some statistics on the 2008 season, which are quite interesting.  Yes, I recognize the difference between revenue and profit (unlike the people from that little math-fail), but note that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement depends on revenue sharing, not profit sharing (see also: Hollywood accounting).

And you know what else?  To avoid more sad cases like Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley (not to mention sad injury stories like Jason White!)... who I appreciated staying at USC even though they stupidly gave up draft position and future earnings for college glory...  the whole amateur thing is a stupid lie we tell to ourselves.  Unless, of course, you think that Matt Leinart taking ballroom dancing to retain his amateur status is how the college game should work.

If you do?  Well, I applaud you making it this far, although I fear you probably aren't the target audience of reason.

Stick a Fork in Amateur Status.  It's Over.

The most succinct argument I can give you?

15 year old Michelle Wie was able to go pro.  20 year old Mike Williams was not, even after years of playing football for free.

It's time to give up the double standards and hang the NCAA's jersey from the rafters.  Stick a fork in it, retire its number, have a ceremony if you want - but stop exploiting athletes solely because their unique combination of genes, motivation, opportunities, luck and lack of injuries gave them skill in basketball or football instead of a different sport.

Or, you know, skill at a desk job.

Intern rights!



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and dog.

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

DQYDJ may be compensated by our partners if you make purchases through links. See our disclosures page. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Sign Up For Emails
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram