College sports and the myth of amateurism

With the arrival of spring, comes madness. College basketball madness, that is. As a nation prepares for war, sports writers are turning their attention toward the season-ending tournament that generates the NCAA a $6 billion multiyear TV contract from CBS. Millions more rain down from corporate sponsorships, the sale of licensed merchandise, luxury seating, parking, concessions, and other revenue streams. Some new basketball arenas look more like shopping malls.

Aside from the pretournament type, another story is grabbing sports-page headlines. Controversy is piling up around the talented athletes who make such events possible. It concerns this question: Do the players deserve a greater share of the revenue they help generate?

In Nebraska, state Sen. Ernie Chambers has introduced a bill that would require college football players to be paid a stipend in addition to the athletic scholarships they currently receive.

Ironically, the NCAA, the organization that transformed March Madness into a multibillion-dollar commercial extravaganza, has voiced opposition to the proposal on the grounds that it contradicts a long-standing commitment to amateur principles. College sports is an educational enterprise, they say, not a business.

This sort of rhetoric is appealing to those of us who like to think that college athletes are simply students who play sports during their free time. The harsh reality, however, is that over the past three decades, the NCAA has taken commercialism to heights few people could have ever imagined. Participation in big-time college sports has become virtually indistinguishable from full-time employment.

When I played football for the University of Notre Dame in the 1960s, the NCAA had already compromised its half-century commitment to amateur principles. In 1956, NCAA rules allowed universities to offer talented players "scholarships" to pay for room, board, tuition, and fees. Nonetheless, the four-year "no cut" scholarship I received back then drove home the point that Notre Dame was committed to me as a student for four years, regardless of my performance on the playing field. As a result, not only did I enjoy the success of playing on a championship team, I got the message that education was what really mattered.

Unfortunately, since I graduated from Notre Dame, the NCAA has given scholarships all the trappings of an employment contract. In 1967, for instance, rules were adopted that allow the immediate termination of scholarship aid to athletes who voluntarily withdraw from sports. By 1973, four-year scholarships were replaced with grants whose renewal is determined on a year-to-year basis. Coaches can now "fire" players who sustain injuries or who turn out to be recruiting mistakes. Because coaches control financial aid, athletes have little choice but to make athletics their top priority.

So paying Nebraska football players becomes merely a logical extension of the "pay for play" policies instituted by the NCAA decades ago. The only difference is that, unlike the current system that uses the myth of amateurism to cap player compensation at room, board, tuition, and fees, the Nebraska proposal would cut through the hypocrisy.

Universities and celebrity coaches have sold their souls to broadcast media and sneaker companies for millions of dollars. But what about the players - especially those from poor families - who could really use the extra cash? A stipend from the NCAA could help disadvantaged athletes build some financial security while still in college.

There is, however, a far more practical alternative for restoring academic and fiscal integrity in collegiate sports than open professionalism. That alternative is to eliminate athletic scholarships altogether.

By replacing athletic scholarships with need-based financial aid, most athletic programs could reduce current budget deficits, better meet the requirements of Title IX, and, most important, maintain college athletes as an integral part of the student body.

Schools with massive financial and emotional investments in professional college sports are likely to reject this model. But they shouldn't be surprised when athletes start demanding the right to engage in entrepreneurial activities - just like the coach.

Allen L. Sack is a founding member of the Drake Group, a national organization of faculty committed to quality education for college athletes.

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