The Economics of Assistant Coaches' Bribery

It is one of the biggest stories in the media today: for assistant basketball coaches have been accused of taking bribes. Here is a summary from CBS News:

The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one,” Joon H. Kim, the acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high school recruits. … For the 10 charged men, the madness of college basketball went well beyond the Big Dance in March. Month after month, the defendants exploited the hoop dreams of student-athletes around the country, allegedly treating them as little more than opportunities to enrich themselves through bribery and fraud schemes.”Each arrested coach is facing up to 80 years in prison.

Obviously, this is exceedingly serious business. I want to stress the word “business.”

I don’t want to discuss the legal issues involved. I am not a lawyer. If I were lawyer, I would find out how to make a buck on taking one side or the other, and I would cash in. But I am simply a lowly journalist, struggling to put food on the table.

Let’s talk about the economics of bribery.

Time to buy old US gold coins

If you bribe a government official, it is obvious that you are after some kind of special treatment. It is illegal because it is a misuse of state power. Throughout history, governments have had passed laws against bribery, because it is very bad public relations for the government when a government official takes money to rig the operations of the government. Governments don’t like this kind of bad publicity, so they are laws against bribery. Politicians want such bribery to be limited to voting, when they sell themselves to the highest bidders (political action committees). The politicians don’t want competition from bureaucrats and judges in selling government favors.

In the free market,if you want something, you offer money for it. The rule of the free market is simple: high bid wins. I recently completed a book on economics in which I describe the free market as a gigantic auction. I also have a section defending the moral legitimacy of this auction.

No consumer is accused of bribery merely because he offers a higher price than another consumer for whatever it is he wants to buy. We are not going to read about someone arrested for bribery at an auction for offering a higher bid.

So, what has bribery got to do with college coaching?

What I’m about to write, I am stealing from a great talk by the late Ben Rogge. Rogge (pronounced ROWEguee) was a first-rate free-market economist. He was dean of Wabash College. He did not write much, but he was the best after-dinner speaker I have ever heard. He was funny. He was incisive. He was able to get his points across. It was widely believed that Leonard Read wanted Rogge to succeed him at the Foundation for Economic Education after he died, but Rogge died before Read did.

I think I must have heard Rogge’s presentation on the economics of college sports over 40 years ago. Here is his analysis.


The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a cartel. It exists in order to hold down payments to athletes who are in a position to generate revenues for specific colleges. Colleges want to have athletic programs, but they do not want to pay for them. The major colleges in the sports world, Roby said, get huge amounts of money from ticket sales. What he said 40 years ago of course applies today, except the amounts of money are so much greater because of televised sports.

The colleges do not want to pay their employees for the privilege of generating money from their performance. So, he said, unlike almost every other profession, the government allows the NCAA to establish rules forbidding market based payments to star athletes. The athletes are allowed scholarships, despite the fact that they are not scholars, but that is supposed to be the limit of payments to the athletes.

There is a movie about this: Blue Chips. A basketball coach who has made to the finals twice, but who has fallen on hard times recruiting-wise, can no longer recruit the best players. Other collegiate coaches have arranged under-the-table deals to pay more than he can pay to sign the top players. Easy way to break the rules? That is what the movie is all about. The movie has a cameo by Shaquille O’Neal, who plays one of the players that Nolte is after.

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