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A Mosh Pit of Ethical Questions on the Gridiron

November 8, 2016 - 12:00am
David Surdam
football on a turf field

This is the Autumn of discontent for football fans in Iowa, as all three university teams are struggling. Since none of the teams is in the hunt for a national championship, perhaps this is a good time to consider some business ethics aspects of big-time football, both collegiate and professional.

Let's be blunt, college and professional football are businesses. College athletic departments and NFL teams sell you entertainment in return for your money. There is nothing inherently unethical about that. The dubious ethics revolve around player and market control issues.

For years, NFL owners and NCAA authorities sought ways to control players. The NCAA kills lots of trees with its books listing all of its byzantine rules. The NCAA limits player movements. Players often have to sit out a year, if they switch colleges; this rule is mostly for the benefit of college athletic programs. Players are still trying to get paid for their efforts. The NFL owners used to employ the reserve clause to control players and to limit them to bargaining with just one team. One vestige of this element of exploitation is the reverse-order player draft, whereby a player may only negotiate with the team holding "draft rights" to his services. In both college and professional football, then, many players are likely being paid less than what they would have under competitive bidding.

Not only do colleges and professional owners control players and often under-pay them, they have sometimes tried to avoid responsibility for medical bills associated with playing football. For many years, the NCAA advised its member schools to define football players as "student-athletes," in order to evade liability for Worker's Compensation. NFL owners have long been callous toward player injuries. The owners fought the insertion of an injury clause into the standard player contract. Although most of the owners did pay for their players' team-related medical expenses, player lawsuits to get reimbursement were frequent in the 1950s. The teams grudgingly made medical coverage a part of the standard contract in later years. The concussion settlement of last year was another example of NFL getting a sweet deal, due to the former players' desperate and immediate need for money to cope with health care expenses. The owners sidestepped potentially huge settlement damages in return for a relatively small fixed sum (and don't let the almost one-billion dollar settlement fool you; in the NFL, a billion dollars is not a lot of money).

The NCAA and the professional owners set the rules for admittance into the Football Bowl Subdivision or the NFL. In most industries, incumbent members cannot set the rules for admittance of new entrants without violating antitrust laws. It would be as though two local grocery store chains in your town set the rules for any other grocery stores to move into town. Professional owners want entire metropolitan markets to themselves, so they have created territorial rights for themselves. These rights create monopoly power for professional football within a given city.

Fans have to ask themselves whether their dollars should go to supporting such shenanigans. Football certainly creates much excitement and joy (and, admittedly, some sorrow), but is it ethical to support an endeavor whereby participants are risking so much and colleges and the NFL are creating mini-monopoly power? A libertarian perspective would argue that as long as players know of and understand the risks, if they freely choose to participate, then this is a contract between consenting adults.

I watch football occasionally; there is no denying that it is a great spectacle, especially for television. Maybe I would have liked watching the fun and games at the Roman Coliseum (although, admittedly the analogy is not completely apt, as many of the participants in Rome were not there voluntarily). But I get a queasy feeling knowing I'm contributing to a spectacle involving high costs for players and potential antitrust violations.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.


Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics

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