- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2012

From spectacular shots to dramatic finishes, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — which culminates in Monday night’s championship game — is a thrilling sports spectacle beyond reproach.

Well, unless you’re a free-market conservative.

Here’s the thing about March Madness, and by extension big-time college sports: If you’re a true, markets-know-best believer in the prosperity-creating, All-American double helix of economic opportunity and liberty, you ought to find the whole extravaganza infuriating. Not the dribbling and dunking. The system.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: The NCAA is not the solution to the problems of college sports; the NCAA is the problem. More overreaching than any federal bureaucracy. More antithetical to freedom than any convoluted health care legislation. A case study in failed utopianism. The source of the very corruption it purports to police.

Fancy yourself an ideological heir to the proud tradition of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and, um, Grover Norquist? You can still don a State U. sweatshirt and fill out a bracket. But you absolutely, positively cannot in good conscience condone the college sports status quo.

The NCAA nanny state

True story: Before a game between Syracuse University and Kansas State in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, Wildcats forward Jamar Samuels was suspended for accepting $200 from his old Amateur Athletic Union coach to buy food on the road. Why the punishment? Because Mr. Samuels’ actions were against NCAA rules — the money part, not (for now) the eating part.

The NCAA has regulations governing whether coaches can serve their players bagels (sometimes) with cream cheese, jelly and other condiments (an “improper benefit” until this year). It has rules that cover when coaches can text message recruits and when Gatorade should be served instead of chocolate milk; rules that prevent rowers from betting their racing shirts against each other and coaches’ wives from sending Christmas cards to new recruits; all of them part of a 434-page (!) rulebook that has existed since the Eisenhower administration — the sacred scrolls of a Kafka-esque culture of bureaucratic irrationality and red tape.

Example: The NCAA put the University of Nebraska on probation because the school’s bookstore was giving athletes not only their required course textbooks, but also the books professors recommended as helpful supplemental reading.

Example: Louisiana State University baseball player Chris Sciambra recently suffered a potentially life-threatening neck injury during a road game and was flown back to Baton Rouge, La. on an Auburn University private jet. But Mr. Sciambra’s father had to drive home separately — because joining his ailing son on the plane might have violated NCAA regulations. Which ones? According to news reports, no one was really sure. But better safe than sorry.

And you thought Obamacare was onerous.

Most of the NCAA’s nit-picky laws exist to safeguard the ideal at the heart of college sports. Amateurism. The notion that athletes should not be paid for their labor, even though it is, in fact, work. Work that generates tremendous economic value. Work that other people are more than willing to pay to watch. Work that is the product of years of self-sacrifice, industriousness and (literal) hustle, things conservatives believe should be encouraged and rewarded.

Wait, you say: College athletes are rewarded. They get scholarships. This is true. And good (even if studies have found that the average difference between athletic scholarships and the actual cost of living is about $3,000 per school year).

Still, scholarships alone are not sufficient justification to impose arbitrary, paternalistic limits on athletes’ earning potential — not in the country that fought a Revolutionary War on the principle of Hey, we’ll decide what we do with our money, thank you very much.

Take Kentucky superstar Anthony Davis. The nation’s best college player is worth a lot more to the top-ranked Wildcats — a basketball program that reportedly grossed about $25 million in 2011 — than the mere value of his scholarship. Yet amateurism punishes his success. If Mr. Davis were to accept a great big bulging sack of gold doubloons from the school, or from a wealthy and grateful alumni booster, or from a Lexington-area car dealership in exchange for appearing in a television commercial — why, exactly, would that be wrong? Because the NCAA says so? Because Mr. Davis is a talented college basketball player, as opposed to a talented college musician, or actor, or, really, any other kind of talented American citizen?

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