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Let's exploit some college students! An economist's view on the NFL draft

2 years ago
David Surdam
Football players lined up

It’s May, and it’s graduation time. Many of my readers are business majors, and you have my congratulations. Suppose, however, that you earned your CPA. The Big Four accounting firms have decided to install a reverse-order draft of graduating CPA’s. The firm with the worst record gets to draft first. Accounting firms would be savvy enough to infuse glamor into the proceedings. Whichever firm drafted you has sole property rights to your accounting labor. As you read this, you might think, “Professor Surdam has gone bonkers after a long semester. No one would dare set up such an egregious violation of students’ civil liberties.”

But wait! I’m not through describing this hypothetical situation. In the weeks leading the draft, promising new CPAs from around the country are invited to a combine. Here they are tested (just how fast can you audit these figures), poked, and prodded. Managers might take measurements and blood tests.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This is an outrage!” Yet, on April 27-28, the National Football League perpetrated such an outrage. Promising young men are invited to the NFL combine. They run a 40-yard dash, take an intelligence test, are measured and evaluated psychologically, and give blood and DNA samples. These data are supposed to be private, but the information is routinely leaked to the press.

NFL fans love the draft, just as do basketball, baseball, and hockey fans (I’m excluding soccer, because I don’t bother with it). I used to love reading about upcoming NBA drafts. I still read about them. As an economist, however, I’ve learned that the draft exploits players. The fact that these young men will earn millions does not reverse the fact that they are being exploited. The NFL owners want to limit a young player’s bargaining leverage to just one team. In this way, the owners can hire players on the cheap. The Big Four accounting firms have never dared to install such a ridiculous draft. Our CPA graduates would be aggrieved at being denied the opportunity to choose their employer and place of employment.

An article in the New York Times of April 28 by Michael Powell sums up the situation nicely: “From Combine to Selection, Prospects Are Treated Like Pieces of Meat.” Although Powell compares the scrutiny to assessing the “finest Wagyu cattle” (Japanese-bred cattle known for its fine marbling), let me be blunt: the similarities between the NFL combine and the notorious slave markets of nineteenth-century America are striking. Given that the majority of the potential players are African-American, the similarities are disquieting. True, the players volunteer for such intrusive examination and their children are not subject to similar treatment, but the owners have rigged the game. If you want to play in the NFL, your choice is basically to accept the system or risk being denied employment. The NFL is not looking for people who will upset the status quo.

Powell quoted some lawyers regarding the rather cavalier attitudes regarding players’ privacy and the leaking of information. The draft combine may violate federal law. Requesting genetic information apparently violates the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules. Some people apparently argue that “professional football is a secular religion and so exempt from mortal trespasses.” Other people assert that current players and owners have negotiated many of the draft protocols. You should note that college athletes are not involved; in some cases, the current players bargained away their younger brethren’s rights.

The owners claim that the reverse-order draft allegedly maintains or enhances competitive balance, but economists find mixed evidence, at best, to support this claim.

At its most basic, however, the NFL combine fails an ethics test. The owners and their coaches are viewing these young men as objects. Talented players are a means to an end.

Fans should think whether they want to tolerate such blatantly unethical actions. The NFL offers a marvelously dramatic product that brings excitement and joy to millions, but if you don’t want your conscience pricked, don’t think too hard about what lurks behind the glamor.

Author

Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics

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