It is an historical accident that the sports that are popular in America are the sports that are popular in America. There is nothing intrinsic to the American character or humanity itself that makes us prefer American football to soccer, curling, or jai alai. Preferences are wholly fungible. But for the fact that the corporate and marketing nexus of the powerful and privileged united to push American football upon the populace in the mid-20th century, we might have easily seen amateur leagues of volleyball or table tennis become the marketing machine that American football is.
We’ve also seen that it’s clear that certain American preferences - like ours for contact over non-contact sports - are unambiguously harming our citizens. American football, in particular, is indisputably bad for the athletes who play it. If we could wave a magic wand and make swimming or cricket the cultural force that American football is, we would be failing our fellow citizens not to do so.
So from the perspective of social justice, the push to pay college-enrolled student-athletes is an odd one. The only players who would benefit are males who play American football and basketball. When it comes to sports, those two subsidize everything else:
If athletic departments must compete to pay student-athletes, those other sports that are subsidized are going to begin to disappear. There’s simply no two ways around it. They are, plainly, a drain on college finances. More than that, scholarships offered in other sports would begin to disappear. A certain number of scholarships for female athletes are required, but many others aren’t. NCAA division I schools may offer twelve softball scholarships, for example, that are not required. When resources must be diverted toward the revenue-generating male sports, you can guaran-damn-tee that those other sports will begin to disappear.
And why should people born with a natural athletic proclivity that suits them to basketball or football be privileged over those born with a proclivity for softball or swimming? The current system of subsidization brings more justice to the luck lottery. It’s an historical accident that basketball and football are popular; we shouldn’t allow that historical accident to preclude differently-abled rollers in the genetic lottery from enjoying a fully-realized athletic life.
There are many possible solutions here. We could mandate more scholarships in the subsidized sports. We could mandate that operational expenses be split among more than the two money-making sports. We could put strings on federal money that would mandate salary ceilings for coaches or maximum administrative costs for athletic departments. But in the end, the money has to come from somewhere. If it’s not coming from the other sports, it’s coming from other expense streams, and that might mean cuts to social justice programs in other departments: Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, or others. Quite frankly, we can’t trust university administrators to preserve progressive institutions in the face of budget cuts.
On the surface, it seems like participants of major college athletics are getting a raw deal. And moreso, it should offend our progressive sense of justice because minorities are disproportionately the ones getting less than “market value” for their talents. Their “real” value, we’re told, is not reflected in their compensation - as if the market of aesthetic preferences of the American public reflects any kind of justice at all. Current aesthetic preferences are really nothing more than the nexus of winners of a genetic lottery enjoying the spoils of an historical accident of the corporate-media sports marketing machine. The male major-sport athletes are already compensated with scholarships, and their scholarships are by and large much larger than scholarships in the other sports.
What the amateur system does is place a price ceiling on the talents of genetic-lottery winners and redistribute the winnings among the less privileged. Paying college athletes would end the redistributive athletics system. Let’s not succumb to these market-based temptations.