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The Death of Amateurism

Opinion | September 6, 2014

University students were on summer vacation when they heard the news about the NCAA. On August 8th, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled on the landmark O’Bannon v. NCAA class-action lawsuit. Her final decision was that the NCAA must amend the rules regarding their use of athlete likenesses for commercial purposes without compensation. According to Wilken, these regulations represent an unreasonable restraint of trade: a violation of the United States antitrust law. The ruling rebukes the principle of amateurism that the NCAA has hidden behind to avoid compensating players while colleges, television networks, and the NCAA itself has benefited vastly from the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA has always maintained the concept of amateurism, the principle of playing sports without any monetary compensation. According to the athletic association, paying its players—or allowing them to make money through endorsements or external means—violates the concept of amateurism itself.

Yet in the eyes of the public, college sports can no longer fall under the scope of amateur systems. They are big businesses; men’s basketball or football coaches at state universities are regularly the highest-paid public employees in their states. Championship games usually draw upwards of 20 million viewers, second only to the NFL in popularity. While coaches, athletic departments, and other university employees can claim some of the credit for these earnings, most of it is made on the backs of the players themselves. However, the NCAA claims that by providing scholarships for players that cover their tuition, housing, books, and meal plans, players are receiving enough compensation.

The NCAA’s illusion of balance between give and take for its athletes is not as fair as it seems. While scholarships are contingent upon athletes taking and passing classes, they also require those students to immerse themselves in their sports—from training to practices to the games themselves. At power colleges—those with the biggest and most successful athletic programs—the time commitment that comes with playing a sport can be as large as that of a full-time job. Players have testified that they often work up to 50 hours a week in-season, with only a slight reduction in time commitment during the offseason. The time estimates don’t even factor in the physical toll that comes with playing, say, football or basketball, which are by far the most popular college sports.

The end result at the college level is one where “student-athletes” neither receive the education that they are promised, nor the compensation for their athletic performance. Up until O’Bannon, they didn’t even own the rights to their likenesses—their universities and the NCAA did. The system essentially functions to separate college athletes from deserved compensation, a conspiracy that has been able to hide underneath tradition, pageantry, and popularity until now.

We are already seeing the transformations in the NCAA since the recent announcement that the NCAA will implement relaxed rules regarding recruitment and compensation for the very largest football and basketball powerhouses. If these transformations continue, amateurism will die—players will finally and rightfully receive true compensation for the work they do. In the most extreme scenario, college football and basketball will be divorced from academia entirely and will turn into true minor leagues where prospective pros can focus entirely on athletic development and will be compensated for it. Even though this will bring on its own set of problems, it appears to be the fairest solution. At the very least, we will see the end of this era of college sports, one that has existed for decades.

Ultimately, if you want to see what college sports may evolve into, you should look at a DIII school, like Tufts or the rest of the NESCAC. While DIII schools like Tufts still recruit people based on athletic ability, their lack of scholarships and lesser focus on sports reduce the prevalence of conflicting incentives for athletes and institutions. This system lacks the blatant exploitation and hypocrisy found in major college football and basketball. Sophomore Tafari Duncan, a Tufts rower, commented, “I pretty much lived inside what I interpreted as the NCAA guidelines, so I never really thought about them.” Absent the corporate-branded stadiums and millions in TV money, the NCAA’s priority is to ensure that students are academically eligible to play in the first place. Student-athletes become exactly what they should be: students first, athletes second. Athletes join a team because they want to play, not because their attendance at the school depends on it.

This end goal is essentially what college sports looked like in their original incarnation, before ESPN, celebrity coaches, and mega-stadiums. It may be what all college sports become if the NCAA continues to transform. In the event that true minor leagues are created for football and basketball, the competition within college sports will naturally be lower. Without multimillion dollar TV contracts, there will be less room for the exploitation of athletes that occurs within contemporary college ranks.

I admit, this transformation will be somewhat hard to watch. I will miss the rivalries, the pageantry, the way college sports embrace and fill up the myriad of empty spaces in America that pro leagues avoid. I will almost miss the cartoonish, borderline quaint villainy of the NCAA and the ease of hating it. But I won’t miss the actual NCAA. I won’t miss the hypocrisy and the sanctions. I won’t miss seeing my favorite players go down with injuries, vanishing away their promised pro earnings and leaving them with nothing.