In 1912, Jim Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon because he was deemed a professional athlete for having played minor league baseball for $2 a day. From their inception until the late 1980s, the games were intended only for amateur athletes, on the notion that those who practiced a sport professionally would have an unfair advantage over those who played merely as a hobby.
Of course, this didn't work after a while. Countries in the Soviet Bloc sponsored their athletes so that they could train all day, every day, while athletes from other nations had to find ways to compete while not receiving any compensation for their extreme training routines. By the 1970s this emphasis on amateurism was phased out, and by 1992 it had disappeared as the United States sent basketball's Dream Team to the Barcelona games, where it defeated each team it played by more than 40 points.
This week, the experts of the IGM Forum were asked to consider if the NCAA let colleges pay athletes with more than scholarships, then top colleges in men's basketball and football would pay most athletes much larger sums. Unsurprisingly, with their deep understanding of supply and demand, 90 percent of the forum agreed that such compensation would take place.
"The best athletes at the best D-1 schools would obviously be paid a lot," said Austan Goolsbee of Chicago Booth. Harvard's Oliver Hart agreed, noting, "Since the stakes are high, the incentive to pay top athletes a lot is strong."
Several panel members pointed out that the current compensation system isn't working as intended anyway. Stanford's Robert Hall said, "Star basketball and football players, for sure [would be paid]. Historically, this has been happening through alumni off-campus deals and the like." Similarly, Yale's Christopher Udry commented, "There is a regular parade of recruiting violations in the face of potentially harsh penalites."
As occurs frequently with IGM polls, there was a semantic disagreement over the use of the word "most." Many panelists pointed out that only top athletes would receive high compensation. "'Most' is probably wrong, but we would be likely to see the superstar compensation phenomenon, with some million-dollar athletes," said William Nordhaus of Yale. MIT's Richard Schmalensee registered an uncertain vote for a similar reason: "Some schools would clearly pay some athletes a good deal more, but I have a hard time with 'most.'"
Nonetheless, this week's poll makes it clear that the economic experts that populate the IGM Forum are united on one thing: American universities are willing to pay hard cash for top athletes.