Thrill of Victory

Ed O’Bannon v. the NCAA: Can money buy happiness?

It’s been an eventful past couple of months in sports, so you could be forgiven if you haven’t been paying attention to former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and his class-action lawsuit against the NCAA. You sure will be soon, for there will be a class certification hearing on June 20 to determine whether the suit can go forward. Rather than summarizing its significance here, I’ll link to Andy Staples’ excellent piece in Sports Illustrated, which should be required reading for sports fans.

In the worst-case scenario from the NCAA’s perspective, there are roughly a billion and a half pieces of fallout from a successful suit. In matters like this, it’s too hard to predict exactly what could happen, but safe to say that none of those things will be good.

There are at least a half-dozen areas of that fallout that could merit their own blog, but today I wanted to focus on one that nobody’s brought up. It wouldn’t have even come to my mind had I not recently been reading Dan Ariely’s book about behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational, literally just a couple of hours after reading an article on the O’Bannon case last week. The part of the book that piqued my interest was a chapter about paying people for things they’d otherwise do for free.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m a capitalist at heart. I believe in people getting paid what they’re worth. At the same time, I also worked many years in higher education, which is decidedly un-capitalistic in many ways, and so I have an appreciation for that world as well.

Obviously, there are gray areas where the worlds of capitalism and education collide; schools often let in athletes who don’t belong in college because they know what their athletic performance will do for the school’s coffers. In a perfect world, the professional systems would work like baseball’s, where kids who want to chase the money have a choice to skip college and get paid at 18, but the NBA and the NFL would rather let the colleges subsidize player development, and colleges seem to put up only token protest as the money flows, and it’s not changing any time soon.

Back to Ariely… he gives us plenty to contemplate regarding what could happen if the courts allow athletes to get paid. He devotes a chapter of his book to the intersection of social norms with markets, i.e., what happens when we start paying people for what they’d otherwise do for free.

For example, think of a man going to his mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. The meal more than meets his expectations, and at the end of it, he starts ripping $100 bills out of his wallet to pay for the meal, asking how much he “owes.” Though well-intended, this would be an insult in most households.

Ariely shared another story about how the AARP once asked a group of lawyers to consider offering their services for a low fee, something along the line of $30 per hour. The attorneys declined, probably feeling insulted by a low-ball offer, but later, when the AARP asked them to donate their time, they accepted.

Ariely went on to describe a number of small experiments in which participants were asked to complete simple tasks for free, while other participants were paid small sums for the same tasks. Generally, as those small sums of money increased, so did productivity, but interestingly enough, the people who worked for free worked just as hard as those in the “high” pay group.

To take it a step further, Ariely discussed the idea of a man taking a woman out on several expensive dates, and then casually mentioning the cost of those dates after he’s gotten not so much as a kiss. You can let your imagination take it from there.

The implications are pretty obvious: when we start mixing business and pleasure, it has some funny consequences. We’re also a comparison-based society; we can be perfectly happy with what we make until we find out what someone else gets.

Supposing that even a flat stipend to each athlete is the answer, what happens if the all-conference quarterback starts thinking about how he’s paid the same as the second-string kicker? Or what happens when football players – who bring in the most revenue – start thinking about the stipends that other athletes get in other sports that don’t generate the same cash?

Coincidentally, I also just finished reading another book, Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, which interviewed about a dozen baseball players who generally played in the period between the two World Wars. The interviews were conducted in the 1960s, long after the players had retired.

Now, there’s always a tendency for older players to romanticize the past, but a lot spoke of being willing to pay for free, and talked of how players didn’t seem to love the game now that they were making “big money” – and this was still long before the first million-dollar salary (Nolan Ryan, 1979). Interestingly enough, before Ryan got rich, baseball had just one strike that resulted in missed games (1972 – 86 games were canceled) but two major strikes since. What it proves is that, because of our comparison tendencies, more money just buys the potential for more unhappiness.

College sports have more or less operated in the world of social norms. Now, to be honest, the gray areas between social norms and market norms have become more gray as playing major sports, football in particular, become more like full-time jobs as players increasingly stay on campus and work out all summer rather than go home and get a job as they once did. Perhaps that’s unconsciously one driver behind the O’Bannon movement. Still, I think it’s undeniable than historically-speaking, tens of thousands have played for the love of the game, with pride for their alma mater, and in great appreciation for getting a full scholarship in return.

I will offer no opinion on whether players should or shouldn’t be paid today; in spite of my capitalist tendencies, these reasons and many others I still am unable to wrap my head around all the consequences of doing so. I’m simply saying that if the O’Bannon side wins, it’s clearly going to open Pandora’s Box, right down to the girl who’s reminded how expensive dinner dates are. Perhaps it’s time to pause and consider the old phrase, “Be careful what you wish for.”