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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

REGGIE BUSH AND LAISSEZ FAIRE
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SMQ briefly had an affinity for some sports talk radio not involving local obsessions (the good-natured Jim Daniels Show, with sidekick Jason Smith, was a daily highlight in a gloomy junior year of college) and patience for some others, prior to getting a life and increasingly coming across nothing but abominable awkward pause machine Jim Rome and his illiterate, belligerent "kwones." So this will likely be the only national sports talk-related post you will ever get from him...

...but the chances he could ignore Erik Kuselias' stabs at libertarian philosophy in analyzing the Reggie Bush case on ESPN Radio's The SportsBash Tuesday are zero.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on an underlying, hypothetical premise that the allegations against Mr. Bush are true, which has not and potentially will not prove to be the case. This is an assumption made strictly for the sake of abstract argument, and not a premature indictment. Thank you for sparing SMQ any unnecessary "guilty until proven innocent" accusations.]

Actually, Kuselias draws a very important distinction that his callers had an impossible time puncturing: there is an innate difference between morality and rules, and there are often conflicts. His example - a good one - is the common crime of driving over the speed limit, or of driving without buckling a seat belt. Both are illegal, neither is immoral. When a citizen receives a driver's license, he agrees to proceed according to the rules of the state that issued the license, and he pays the consequences - a fine, a day in class, etc. - for breaking the agreed-upon rules, but breaking those rules never amounts to a moral lapse except in the rare case an intentional decision puts another person's life in danger (as drunk driving or egregious speeding may, but failing to buckle a seat belt, for instance, does not). So far, so good.

Therefore, Kuselias argued, since Reggie Bush only broke some NCAA rule by allowing a potential agent to pay for his family's rich new digs, and not any moral law, he couldn't condemn him for helping his folks. Hell, Kuselias would have done the same thing. It's okay to report it, okay to investigate it, okay to punish Bush appropriately for any rules he broke. But breaking the rules in this case was not only not immoral, but actually moral, because his family was better off, and because Bush was only taking advantage of an opportunity he created himself by his natural talent, hard work and subsequent accomplishments. This is in tune with Objectivist ethics on such subjects:
But why is amateurism a virtue? In Objectivist ethics, a "virtue" is an expression of rationality, something which expresses the value of a man's life. For example, "independence" is a virtue, because it recognizes that man must form his own judgments and live by the work of his own mind. In contrast, "amateurism," especially as applied by the NCAA, is not a virtue, because it holds that a man must--as an inflexible ethical principle--reject any form of compensation for his own work.


This line of argument flies only if Bush's actions were as victimless as those of someone who fails to buckle his seatbelt - but they ain't: USC, its players and its fans certainly care, because they are the ones most likely to suffer consequences from Bush's actions. True, he helped his family...but at the likely expense of his school and teammates. By disregarding the likelihood that his decision could put USC on future probation or cause it to forfeit some of its previous massive winnings, Bush let "Trojan Nation," or whatever the USC program and fan base prefers to call itself, down. So those thousands of people certainly care, or should.

And not only are there the bureaucratic consequences that exist for merely breaking a rule per se; there's a reason the rule exists, and in this case, the big picture consequences of breaking it are the undermining of fair recruiting and, subsequently, the maintenance of a widely competitive game.

SMQ, the ardent libertarian capitalist, has said it before: the most successful model for socialism in the world is the National Football League, and the reason it works - with the voluntary cooperation of its private members within a free market system (except for lavishly subsidized luxury stadiums, which we will not broach here) - is because those members agree to take every necessary measure to promote the league's primary commodity: competition.

In the market as a whole, companies work to crush the competition so as to increase their own profits by forcing everyone into its doors for lack of options; in sports, though, you're selling competition, and increased parity among competitors - if more games are closer, or more teams have a better chance to win more games - adds to everyone's profits. Hence the salary cap, an essential innovation that prevents the long term rise on a Yankees-Red Sox-Braves level merely on the strength of a massive payroll.

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A free market situation is probably also doomed to failure if there exist control persons who are not subject to external disciplines imposed by various forces over and above competition...

The same is true, of course, for college sports, and not only for profits: fans enjoying closer games and more teams with chances at winning more games is obviously good for any sport. The CFB version of the salary cap is scholarship limitations, and also the prohibition against paying players, which prevents the most monied boosters from buying the best teams at the expense of a better overall product (What? Well, of course they still find ways to do this despite the regulations, but we're talking perfect world theory of rules, and what should be considered cheating and why it should be prevented and/or punished...)

In Reggie Bush's case, agent access to athletes (or their families or friends) undermines the 'amateur' status of said athletes, which is not important for any esoteric or moralistic purposes - and certainly not just because the NCAA says it is - but for the ongoing success of the sport; the "value" being protected isn't amateurism, but competition, and that is good for football or any other sport where the games, and not the individuals, are the commodities.

So, was Kuseilas right that moral law exists outside of civil or even sometime criminal law? Of course. Was he right in applying the "moral loophole" to the case of a highly-sought athlete allegedly using his ability to undermine the standards helping enforce equitable access to the athletes that is fundamental to the success of the game? Hell no.

UPDATE! I'm a Realist ably backs up SMQ's point that the loss of amateurism is bad for college sports here, and expands with a very good argument that fills in the biggest gap in SMQ's post (If amateurism is so good for college, why isn't it also good for the pros?) in suitably market-friendly fashion: "pay for play" would lead to essentially direct competition with the NFL, and thus turns the NCAAs into an utterly ignorable developmental league.
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