Sports  Pay to play

Dispelling the myth of amateurism

Trouble is brewing in the kingdom of American college sports. If the professional pigskin prognosticators are to be believed, we may be soon be sounding the death knell of that dearly-held principle of college athletics: its so-called amateurism.

First of all, a little background for those of you not from the land of good-ol-boys and ‘freedom.’ In the U.S., college athletics is a seriously big business. It is governed by the National College Athletics Association (NCAA), which in 2013 raked in $912.8 million in revenue, most of which comes from television deals and other media and marketing sources, like lending its name to sports video games. The schools with top-level sports teams, like University of Texas, can earn over $100 million per year in revenue from their sports teams. Top football and basketball coaches earn millions of dollars per year. Yet, despite all this money, the NCAA prohibits players from being paid for their work in any form except receiving scholarships, and, more bizarrely, prevents them from earning money through any means related to their athletic performance, including selling their autographs or endorsing products. The NCAA even regulates how athletes may make money in their pre-college careers, making star high school athletes who accept endorsement deals ineligible for playing college sports.

The NCAA justifies making tons of money off of its players without compensating them by appealing to the hallowed amateurism that it argues has been the defining characteristic of college sports. The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, has argued that allowing players to endorse products and accept other corporate deals would leave them vulnerable to exploitation by big business. Harris Pastides, the president of the University of South Carolina, recently stated that a core part of the college sports experience was that the athletes were “not yet corrupted by money and other financial influences.” Another popular defence of the NCAA’s employment practices, taken here from an NCAA legal brief, is that by not paying student athletes, the organization is letting them do “what students do rather than trying to make as much money as possible, which is what professionals do”– in other words, making them focus on their education rather than on money.

Is amateurism really as important to the soul of college sports as the NCAA argues? Probably not. With regards to the ‘make them focus on their education’ defence, no one makes similar arguments about other on-campus jobs like working in the dining hall or at the bookstore.

Many college students successfully manage to learn and make money simultaneously. Similarly, who would say that somebody who worked at the campus bookstore was ‘corrupted’ by their paycheck? Is everyone who receives money for the provision of goods or services ‘impure’ in some way? Why should college athletes be held to a different standard than the rest of society?

Getting back to the first defence, that college athletes would be exploited by corporate interests if allowed to capitalize on their fame financially, one is tempted to say that this is already happening, except the exploiter is the NCAA itself, and its partners such as ESPN and game manufacturer Electronic Arts (EA). Emmert mounted the exploitation defense in a court case that pitted the NCAA against Ed O’Bannon, a former U.S. college basketball star. O’Bannon argued that the NCAA was making money off of the likenesses of players used in the popular licensed NCAA video games published by EA. The NCAA had tried to avoid this kind of lawsuit by making the players in the games nameless and creating intentionally inaccurate player models for them, but their jersey numbers and gameplay attributes made it obvious that the virtual players were meant to represent real players on real college teams. This was not the first time the NCAA has been caught exploiting the fame of specific players for financial gain; in 2013, ESPN college basketball commentator Jay Bilas found that when he searched for star players’ names in the NCAA online store he was taken to links to buy the jerseys worn by those players, despite the NCAA’s insistence that it does not make profit from individual players’ names or reputations. This revelation came during a time when then-college star quarterback Johnny Manziel was under fire for selling his own autograph for profit. The NCAA’s anti-exploitation argument seems more like an ‘only we are allowed to exploit the players!’ argument.

Lest you think I protest too much in support of a student body population that is already coddled and showered with perks, consider this: yes, many of the players at top tier sports schools get full scholarships, but these do not cover the full cost of going to school. According to a recent study by the National College Players Association and Drexel University, the average university athlete with a full scholarship still had to cover $3,222 in expenses per year, and if they had no other source of income than their scholarship living stipend, 85 per cent of full scholarship players would live below the U.S. federal poverty line. Keeping in mind that not all college athletes come from a privileged background and that being a top-level college athlete is a full-time job, it is easy to see how it would be hard for even students with scholarships to make financial ends meet.

Change, however, might be on the horizon. That court case I mentioned earlier, NCAA v. O’Bannon, was decided in O’Bannon’s favor. The judge’s injunction was relatively tame, stipulating that the NCAA could not prevent schools from paying players up to the full cost of attending school, in addition to a $5,000 per year trust from a share of the media money to be received on graduation. Accepting endorsement deals and selling memorabilia is still forbidden for players. Nevertheless, this decision could be the beginning of a huge change in how the NCAA does business, depending on how other pending lawsuits are decided. Perhaps players will finally be able to earn pay for their work and for their image, like everyone else in the America theoretically has the right to do.