May 2023

Profit Over Fairness: The NCAA's Utilization of the Shirky Principle to Exploit Athletes

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The "Shirky Principle," also known as Shirky's Law, is a concept coined by Clay Shirky, a prominent writer and thinker on the effects of the internet and technology on society.

The principle states:

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

Essentially, the Shirky Principle suggests that established institutions, whether they are governmental, corporate, or otherwise, have a tendency to resist or obstruct changes that might challenge their authority or disrupt their existing systems. This principle highlights the inherent self-interest and self-preservation tendencies of institutions, which often prioritize maintaining the status quo over embracing necessary change or innovation.

Understanding the Shirky Principle sheds light on why the NCAA is resistant to paying athletes and why it is in their interest to maintain the status quo. Recognizing this principle is crucial for athletes and fans alike, as it unveils the underlying motives and financial incentives of institutions. Similar conflicts of interest can be observed in various industries, where profit-driven entities may prioritize their own gains over the well-being and success of their stakeholders.

The NCAA, as an established institution, benefits from the current system that excludes athlete compensation. By not sharing revenue with athletes, they retain full control over the financial resources generated by college sports. This preserves their power, authority, and financial stability, ensuring they remain the central authority in college athletics.

Understanding conflicts of interest is key when analyzing the NCAA's stance on athlete compensation. Similar dynamics can be observed in other industries. For instance, a salesperson may prioritize their commission over your actual success, potentially steering you towards products or services that benefit them financially. Similarly, pharmaceutical companies, driven by profit, may focus on long-term subscriptions rather than finding a cure, as ongoing treatments generate more revenue.

The conflicts of interest experienced with sugar addiction, excessive social media use, or gambling highlight the delicate balance corporations manipulate to maximize profits.

They aim to keep consumers engaged and dependent on their products or services, often prioritizing short-term gains over long-term well-being. Similarly, the NCAA aims to maintain a system where athletes are sufficiently motivated to continue participating without reaching a point where they demand a fair share of the revenue.

For the NCAA, the challenge lies in striking a balance between providing enough benefits to athletes to sustain their participation while avoiding crossing the threshold of financial compensation. This approach ensures the NCAA can continue to generate massive revenue while preserving the illusion of amateurism and avoiding legal challenges to their business model.

Understanding the Shirky Principle reveals why the NCAA resists compensating athletes and holds onto the revenue generated by college sports. It highlights the conflict of interest that arises when profit-driven entities prioritize their own financial gains over the well-being and success of those they serve. Recognizing these dynamics empowers athletes and stakeholders to advocate for fair compensation and navigate the complexities of an industry where financial incentives often trump all else.

Athletes can overcome the resistance to compensation by organizing and advocating for their rights collectively. By uniting and forming strong athlete associations or unions, they can leverage their collective power to negotiate with the NCAA and demand a fair share of the revenue generated by college sports. Building alliances with other stakeholders, such as fans, media, and even politicians who support their cause, can further strengthen their position.

Additionally, athletes can utilize legal avenues to challenge the NCAA's amateurism model and seek legal recognition of their rights as employees, which could open the door for direct compensation. Ultimately, by raising awareness, mobilizing support, and utilizing strategic tactics, athletes can pressure the NCAA to reconsider their stance and create a system that ensures fair and equitable compensation for their talents and contributions.

The NCAA has no incentive to offer or pursue payment for student athletes; it goes against their own interests. It's comparable to an attorney actively seeking jail time for their client, which is the prosecutor's role. The NCAA's role is to uphold the amateurism model and maintain the status quo, giving them all the incentive to actively resist athlete compensation.

Issa Hall, Esq

Issa has founded multiple ventures, is an author, and founding partner of Hall & Dixon law firm, with over a decade of experience in tech and law.

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