SPORTS COLUMN: The valuation of student athletes


College athletics in America faces a crisis. This past August, former NCAA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won a suit against the NCAA over the latter’s use of his likeness for commercial purposes. The NCAA currently forbids players from receiving financial compensation during their collegiate careers, but the ruling on this case would permit schools to set up funds in order to compensate players for the usage of their names, images and likenesses.

Of course, the NCAA had no intention of going down without a fight. The billion dollar organization intends to appeal the decision, continuing to claim that it fights to keep the purity of college athletics alive. As always, it fights in the name of amateurism, an ideal that seems to have defined college sports in the Western world.

The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare,” to love. Amateur athletes are driven to play their sports, not by the promise of riches, but by sheer love of the game itself. College athletics have been built on such a model, the origins of which go as far back as Victorian England.

However, it can’t be forgotten that “amateurism” was at the time used as a class distinguisher, where the inability to receive compensation for athletic ability prevented the poor from competing with the higher echelons of society. However, buying into the notion that amateurism merely attempted to ensure a “higher standard” of play, English universities made amateurism the standard. Universities in the United States followed suit.

From its formation in 1906 (when it was still called the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States), the NCAA has been determined to only permit athletes who “participate in competitive physical sports only for the pleasure and the physical, mental, moral and social benefits directly derived therefrom.” However, within this description of the ideal “amateur athlete” lies an unspoken contract: not only the athletes, but also all those involved in this idealized version of the sport ought to refuse financial compensation for their efforts. In order for this model of amateurism to be totally consistent, both players and administrators must work and compete for nothing more than the love of their craft.

Given the current state of college athletics, the reader may find my last statement a little absurd. No doubt it is; the head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, received nearly 2 million dollars for his services. Coaches and trainers don’t have to buy into collegiate “amateurism,” as if not subscribing to the notion invalidates their services. It seems that only the players have to deal with the legacy of this outdated concept.

In this crucial juncture in the NCAA’s history, many have questioned whether the concept of a student-athlete itself is even viable. Some say that, should the NCAA lose its appeal in the ruling, the universities of America will essentially host a professional league, complete with endorsement deals and the like. It’s important to note that many NCAA standards will still be kept in place, including a prohibition on endorsement deals for athletes and academic eligibility standards.

The only thing that has to be abandoned is the notion that getting paid for providing the university a service inherently taints the purity of the service itself. To ask any other student to operate under the same expectations is laughable; no one would ask a student to tutor others for free just because he loves the subject or to work in the dining halls for free. In the case of college athletics, from which the university can gain well into the millions in revenue, the ridiculousness of amateurism is all the more palpable.

Just as amateurism forced lower-income players away from the games of their aristocratic counterparts, the current constraints facing college athletes across America keep them far from the riches they have earned by their play. The coming change to the NCAA system, despite the proposed reimbursement cap of $5000, marks a long overdue change in how we understand the term “student-athlete.” There isn’t necessarily a dichotomy of pure amateur and pure professional; the quality of the sport and the players’ love for it can remain independent of compensation given. Neither being a student nor being an athlete requires forgoing payment one has rightfully earned.


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