In light of all the scandals surrounding college athletics, there has been a lot of debate over the NCAA and the fairness of their rules. People defend the NCAA by pointing to the "free" education these athletes receive or by saying "there is nothing unfair with college being your career path to the NFL." They also cite other professions that require a college education. These arguments are misguided and miss the point. The NCAA is not unfair because it’s the most likely road to the NFL. It’s unfair because the NCAA and its member schools make billions (yes billions) of dollars off the blood, sweat, broken bones, and concussions of student athletes.
Comparing student athletes to medical school students or any other students is ridiculous. How much money do other students generate for their schools? Any other student, regardless of whether they're attending school on scholarship or not, can get a job while in school. There are no restrictions for other students to sell their likeness or other talents while in school. A student athlete getting any kind of job would be a violation of NCAA rules.
The complaint is not that they have to go to school. It’s that the school makes millions off them while not even allowing them to hold a job. The school not wanting to pay them because they want to protect their profits is wrong, but at least it’s an articulable rationale. There is absolutely no logical reason an athlete could not get a job while being a student athlete. So what if a restaurant gets more customers because people know the star quarterback works there? Why can't the star safety get a job as a greeter at a car dealership? What business is that of the NCAA? They're not concerned with the amateur status of any other students, so why should they be concerned with the amateur status of its athletes. The answer is simple: the NCAA is a cartel.
Each individual school which comprises the NCAA is a business. These businesses come together to form an association in order to fix prices, marketing, and production of its athletic programs. The NCAA is nothing more than a cartel. And like any cartel, its function is to maximize the profits of its members. The best way to do that is free labor.
They get away with this by convincing the public that they serve the higher and more important function of education. They are able to hide behind this cloak of righteousness, because education is generally accepted as being very important. It’s a sales job. Its brilliant marketing and nothing more. It allows them to get away with their anticompetitive and exploitative antics. Part of the rationale to not paying athletes, is to protect their amateur status; and not allowing them to be paid by outside sources is just another side to the façade. Nothing about an "amateur" status benefits the athlete, it only benefits those generating profit from the free labor.
Like any other cartel, individual members try to make more money by "cheating" or operating outside the accepted rules of the cartel. What is important about this is that these rules are not just completely unfair, but may also put the athletes in danger.
You can't legislate away a market. You can’t just write on a piece of paper and declare undesired behavior illegal and expect it to just disappear. All that does is push behavior underground. It creates a black market. It pushes these kids into the black market and into the arms of unsavory individuals. The lure of the money, women, and quasi-fame, brings out the snakes. The NCAA funnels these athletes into the snake pit and then punishes them for consorting with snakes. It would be far better to lift the restrictions on employment which would allow these athletes to do honest work, for honest people and make it significantly more difficult for crooks like Nevin Shapiro to take advantage of them.
That’s why the NCAA is unfair, genius.