College athletics and school spirit are among the most cherished of American traditions.
But college sports in the United States are unique in their appeal, both in relation to the rest of the world, which does not share our obsession, and to other forms of entertainment. We pay to see Oscar-caliber actors at the movies, not theater-school novices. We wait in long lines for Bruce Springsteen concerts, not high school battles of the bands. Yet you’ll rarely find a fan of the NBA or the NFL who dismisses college basketball and college football as trifling or insignificant.
So why don’t we regard the winners of the BCS Championship and the NCAA tournament as merely big fish in small ponds? What’s the source of our enthusiasm for college sports that minor league baseball teams would kill for?
The answer dates back to the inception of intercollegiate competition, and it comes down to one word: amateurism.
Popular American sentiment holds a special place for the amateur ideal – we adore the concept of student-athletes who are students first, who wear their school colors, who share a special connection with their fan bases composed primarily of their classmates and alumni and who learn life lessons about teamwork and discipline while also working toward a college degree.
Above all, the conventional wisdom tells us, student-athletes are spared the temptations of huge paychecks. We find it wholesome that they walk away with only an education. Even if it’s just at a subconscious level, these factors bring charm and an innocence to college sports that is absent in the professional realm.
We cry foul when a college athlete is caught taking cash or other perks from a shady character with close ties to the athletic department. We condemn former USC running back Reggie Bush for taking gifts from agents, revoking his distinction as the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner. After all, making money isn’t what college sports are about.
At the same time, we eagerly spend on tickets, t-shirts and bumper stickers. We tune in on Saturdays and lend our captive eyes to television advertisers who pay big bucks to be sandwiched between coverage of young hot shots like Denard Robinson taking snaps while serving as walking (and running, and throwing) promotions for ADIDAS. We buy the magazines, the video games, the key chains and the posters. Various entities – athletic departments, media outlets, apparel sponsors, top-flight coaches – cash in for billions when all is said and done.
The only ones who don’t, it seems, are the athletes who put their bodies and futures on the line for our entertainment.
California State University-San Marcos economist Robert Brown told ESPN.com for a December 2009 story that the average NFL-bound college football player would be worth $1.3 million to $1.36 million per season to his school “if the college game were subject to market forces similar to those that govern the NFL.” Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, he said, would likely be paid more than $2.5 million.
Tebow’s full-ride scholarship was worth $13,000 a year.
Critics of the status quo contend that amateurism is not so much an ideal as an outdated construct, beloved for its quaintness but ultimately serving to bar those who generate value from the compensation to which they’re entitled.
Through the decades, beneath the positive developments for fairness in intercollegiate competition – most notably desegregation and Title IX – the lurking trend of perpetually increasing commercialization has led activists, national columnists and some politicians to insist that the public has been misled, and that the brunt of the labor going into college athletics goes toward lining the pockets of everyone but the laborers themselves.
Ernie Chambers is a former long-time Nebraska state senator who repeatedly introduced legislation that would require stipends for college football and basketball players in the state. It never came to be.
“There should not be surprise at the number of young guys who take what are called ‘extra benefits,’ ” Chambers said in a recent interview. “The shock should be that not all of them do it.”
Chambers, who never uses the word scholarships without preceding it with “so-called” and prefers to call them “contracts of indenture,” says athletes in the revenue-producing sports – at most schools, just football and basketball – are entitled to compensation for the value they bring to universities.
“No other level or classification of employees could be treated as unjustly as all these players, generating this amount of money, and nothing be said about it,” he said.
According to Erik Christianson, director of public and media relations for the NCAA, athletic scholarships are compensation enough.
“Their goal is to graduate and to achieve that college education,” he said.
Indeed, to overlook scholarships or to downplay their importance would be to ignore a great opportunity given to athletes, especially those who otherwise could not afford it or could not get into college. Without a doubt, athletic scholarships have had an immeasurable impact on the lives of these athletes and arguably on society as a whole.
“You can’t say that the players don’t get something,” said Bill Martin, the University of Michigan’s recently retired athletic director and former president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “They get an education. They get an opportunity to experience college life and all the positive attributes of that.”
Martin didn’t dismiss the moral and philosophical case for paying student-athletes, but he did note several legal and practical nightmares that could come from it.
Most would agree that the effort and exertion aren’t necessarily greater for revenue-producing athletes than those in non-revenue sports, which he said would lead to controversy in the hypothetical scenario in which football and basketball players got paid.
He said he would anticipate such a move to be challenged in the courts under Title IX, which ensures gender equality in college sports, if on no other basis.
Above all, though, Martin said the money just isn’t there in most cases.
Only 14 Division I athletic departments – out of 335 – earn revenues that exceed their expenses, according to Christianson, the NCAA spokesman. And even for schools that have profitable football and basketball programs, the money earned goes primarily toward paying student scholarships and subsidizing the non-revenue sports.
“If push came to shove,” Martin said, “and Congress were to say ‘OK, pay them,’ what would athletic departments do? Cut sports. So we decrease the number of opportunities to appropriate participation in college spots at the varsity level.”
He said that while he was athletic director at the University, before the opening of the renovated Michigan Stadium, “four (football) games out of eight, every penny of gate receipts … went toward scholarships.”
But the simmering question is whether, for many revenue-producing athletes, success in athletics comes at the expense of education.
The NCAA touts a statistic that says Division I athletes are more likely to graduate than the general student body. But they won’t draw attention to the fact that for athletes in revenue sports (football and basketball), the NCAA-reported graduation success rates are lower than all the other sports by a significant margin (67 percent for FBS football athletes and 64 percent for men’s basketball compared to 79 percent overall).
Pressed on this, Christianson said that new numbers that show improvement in those sports are forthcoming, and that the current rates show an upward trend from previous years. The NCAA website has only broken links to the pre-2009 data, and requests for the information were not returned by NCAA officials.
Certainly, some of this gap can be accounted for by early attrition to professional sports. But considering only 1.2 percent and 1.8 percent of all NCAA athletes in men’s basketball and football players respectively end up going pro, according to the NCAA, that effect has to be relatively miniscule.
Martin said that the other major factor in play here is the admissions standards of academic institutions. The “sliding scale” system, which allows for tradeoffs between GPA and standardized test scores on NCAA-clearing admissions standards, was changed in 2003 to increase the extent to which one can compensate for the other.
According to Martin, this amounted to “relaxed” admissions standards for NCAA athletes, which Chambers insists were already far too low to take seriously the NCAA’s and universities’ claims to have athletes’ best academic interests at heart.
Chambers also disputes the argument that programs couldn’t afford to pay athletes because, after all, top programs find the money to compensate coaches handsomely. He said this contradiction amounts to hypocrisy on the part of NCAA and the universities.
He bemoaned the fact that it’s often the same coaches quoted spouting about character, personal dignity and loyalty who end up bolting for greener pastures when a more lucrative opportunity presents itself.
He brought up Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s first-year coach who left an ascendant Cincinnati program last winter for the Irish.
“Cincinnati was having a great season, was going to a bowl game. He talked about how he loved it, his family loved it. Everyone was happy,” Chambers said.
“When the siren call came from Notre Dame, without letting those players know, he jumped ship. Some of them found out from the media. Reporters asked them how they felt about it. Some didn’t even know. And at a meeting that was called, some of them left the meeting in tears.”
“This coach for whom they played their hearts out left them in the lurch,” he said. “It’s almost poetic justice that Notre Dame is doing as poorly as it is.”
Many will defend the fact that some football coaches are the highest-paid public employees in their states with the “free market” justification. But this always begs the question: If it were truly a free market, why would the players, who arguably deliver the same kind of value as the coaches, be excluded? There’s certainly irony in the fact that amateurism in college sports is considered profoundly American, while it goes against one of our deepest-held beliefs: that capitalism is the only way.
Christianson said the difference is that players are amateurs and coaches are employees.
To Jason Winfree, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the NCAA, this rationalization falls short because it creates a false distinction. A self-proclaimed free-market guy, Winfree sees it as a moral debate, not a semantic one.
“It’s hard to argue, I think, that college athletes shouldn’t be paid and that everybody else should be paid,” he said. “It seems like a stretch to me.”
“A lot of people sort of have this reaction … Why do they need all that money? Can they handle it at that age?” Winfree said.
“But they’re already being taken advantage of,” he said, and not just by the money they bring in, but often with humiliation.
Winfree lamented the pressure on a 20-year-old athlete on national television: “If they screw up, everybody sees them screw up.”
He posits that the fairest system would completely embrace the market. Players would sign contracts, Winfree said, and a backup kicker could end up earning far less than the starting running back. When asked whether he would cut the wages of a highly touted freshman quarterback who underperforms, he said he would.
He also suggests that athletes shouldn’t be required to be students. “If they’re really not academically oriented, what good is that going to do them anyway? They don’t value that. And maybe they shouldn’t value that. You hate to say this on a campus, but college isn’t for everybody.”
Winfree’s proposal presents problems because it would likely result in high school athletes needing agents to navigate the recruitment and contract process, something Winfree admits is less than ideal for a 17-year-old.
Chambers detests the idea of paying some players more than others. He says such attitudes only give fuel to the pay-for-play opponents who claim there would be no fair way to pay student-athletes.
“It’s not more for a skill position, less for a lineman, more for an offensive player, less for a defensive player,” he said. “They’re all in it together. And whether they ride the bench or ride the shoulders as conquering heroes after the game, they all get paid the same amount.”
Chambers and Winfree are just two individuals who are sympathetic to the idea of paying student-athletes. But their contrasting approaches to the fundamental mechanics of doing so highlight perhaps the biggest challenge faced by pay-for-play advocates: Even if society could be convinced that compensation beyond scholarships for revenue athletes was the right thing to do, the practical implications are daunting.
“The financial structure of higher education today and college athletics, it’s not there without a significant subsidy from the university or the cutting of other sports to pay for it,” Martin said.
In a January 2008 Sports Illustrated column, long-time sports commentator Frank Deford asserted that the revenue programs subsidizing other sports is part of the problem, noting that the football and basketball athletes come from disproportionately poor African-American backgrounds.
“Not only do poor black kids get no remuneration for their work, they are expected to carry all these other coaches and players and teams on their backs with their unpaid labor,” Deford wrote. “Basically, a scholarship boils down to a device to keep the players on the premises where they can perform their services for free.”
Veteran columnist Jason Whitlock took it one step further last July, writing that “Reggie Bush is Kunta Kinte, a runaway slave,” in a piece for FoxSports.com.
Obviously, comparing NCAA athletics to slavery is just inflammatory. But while they’re certainly not paid professionals, they’re not pure amateurs either, as the NCAA contends.
“There’s no question that there’s commercialization,” Martin said. “There’s no question that college coaches, the head coaches, the coordinators at our level make significant income. There’s just no question about it.”
Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and former Nebraska and Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller are leading a class action lawsuit in federal courts on behalf of current and former athletes to try and make the NCAA share revenues earned through the licensing of players’ likenesses with the athletes.
They have had success beyond similar past challenges in the preliminary stages, according to The Associated Press. History says it’s a long shot, but a victory for O’Bannon and Keller would lead to a reckoning in an entire industry – an industry fiercely resistant to this kind of change.
“Higher education is clinging to amateur athletics,” Martin said.
He paused. “That’s a good question. Because I think people would like the world to maybe stop. That they’d like for there to be the concept of amateurism as we grew up with it to remain in effect. Now maybe as we get older in time, that will change.”