Hate the game, not the players

The NCAA does not have a 'hot girl' problem. The NCAA has a problem because it won't create a system in which athletes are fairly compensated for their labor.

If the goal is to have college athletes compensated for their athletic performance on behalf of their respective institutions, then we should create a system in which college athletes are paid for their athletic performance.

That’s true even now that college athletes are able to make what everyone refers to as NIL1 money. Actually, it’s true especially now that athletes can make that NIL money, and I think it’s worth mentioning given the latest story about the tendency for blonde, pretty and exceptionally fit women to earn the most among female college athletes.

The story was published by The Free Press, which has fashioned itself as a publication driven by empirical reporting as opposed to political agendas. But this isn’t about the publication nor is it about the reporter. It’s about the premise, which is that beauty and body shape seem to factor into the earning power of female college athletes to a greater extent than their level of success in their given sport especially when compared to their male counterparts. Livvy Dunne – a gymnast at LSU – is one example. The New York Times profiled Dunne in a more respectful, more thoughtful story at this issue late last year. The Free Press story focused on the Cavinder twins, who played basketball first at Fresno State and more recently at Miami. None of these women are the best in their respective sports, but they earn more than everyone else.

There are two mistakes baked into the framing of both stories:

  1. They presume that NIL earnings should roughly correspond to the athlete’s ability, success or accomplishments in their given sport.

  2. The stories are built around specific athletes, who are not responsible for any of the rules and preferences that are enabling their success. They’re hating on the player in an attempt to criticize the game.

The Cavinder twins (understandably) objected to The Free Press story after it was published. Hanna posted a statement on Twitter that quoted the interview request, which described “the Cavinders as a very important story not only in the context of women’s college sports but new media culture and business.” Compare that to the text of the resulting story, which described them as “not really two separate human beings as much as a single, self-contained brand with 6.4 million followers across all platforms” and later as being “into basketball and wellness. And Jesus.”

Let’s set aside the question of how the story was pitched, though, or the question of whether it was too mean. There is a legitimate issue at the heart of this story. Sports are often described as a true meritocracy, and while we all recognize the reality that prejudice and societal bias can play a role in everything from playing time to earning power, there is still an idealistic belief that at their core, athletic ability and achievement can cut through all that. Sports are even sold as a tool for social good because of the way they can break down barriers within our society like racial prejudice and gender stereotypes. Given all that, when you look at the amount of money that Dunne, the LSU gymnast, and the Cavinder twins are making in comparison to other female college athletes, you can see why there would be a worry that women in college athletics wind up being compensated based on their appearance instead of athletic ability. Here’s a statement from The Free Press story that summarizes this concern:

The fact that anyone expected NIL deals to be based on athletic prowess is rooted in that first misunderstanding I mentioned. Athletes are not being paid to play a college sport. These are marketing deals that are being paid out by third parties, which leaves them open to any range of criteria that those businesses and entities might have for determining compensation, including popularity.

You should see how this is ripe for a scenario in which the economics reflect societal biases just as much — and in some cases more — than athletic ability. And you know what? The Cavinders, in the story, acknowledge this in an admirably forthright fashion:

They didn’t create the system they’re working in, but they are presented in this story as the embodiment of it. It reminds me of the situation in which sideline reporters like Erin Andrews get blamed for the hiring practices in the industry. Now, I think Andrews does an absolutely fine job. I also realize the likelihood that there are other women who might be just as good or maybe even better, but never get the chance because they don’t fit some sort of beauty standard a network holds. What’s Erin Andrews supposed to do, not take the job? Talk to the people who hired her if you think she’s underqualified or there was a better choice. Similarly, if you want to argue it’s wrong that young, fit, blonde women are more highly compensated than other demographics in these marketing deals, you should go look at the people and the history that has created the situation in which young, fit, blonde women are more highly compensated because they fact they earn more in endorsement and marketing deals is not new nor is it novel. Look at the modeling industry, and if you’re response is, “Yeah, but we’re talking about athletes,” then that brings me back to the point I started with: Pay them as athletes.

At its core, the introduction of NIL rules in college sports were a workaround to the NCAA’s refusal to recognize college athletes as workers who produced something of value. NIL was not created because the NCAA wanted to create a fairer system or the organization decided this was the best way to provide some compensation for athletes. It was created because the state of California had passed legislation that made it illegal to prohibit a college athlete from earning money in this way. Essentially, California was going to outlaw certain NCAA restrictions and other states were going to follow suit. It was at the blade of a knife that the NCAA created the policies we now refer to as NIL.

The result is a new economy that is still being sorted out and while I think it is at least some step toward a fairer system, there are going to be inequities and issues. I remain deeply suspicious of how much they’re getting paid because it seems to me that no one has an incentive to tell the truth about exactly how much they’re getting paid, but that’s not really the point here. If you want college athletes to get paid according to their ability to play a sport, then it stands to reason you should create a system in which they are paid for playing the sport.

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