As the NCAA's season-ending basketball tournament approaches, talk of the future of college sports is hot. One of the most controversial questions: Should the college athletes who are the main attraction at this multibillion dollar March Madness tournament be paid? As a longtime supporter of amateur sport, my answer is no. The amateur model embraced by the founding fathers of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1905 remains the best fit for the academic mission of higher education.
However, if the NCAA doesn't change the status quo – which is on a fast course toward building a sports entertainment empire – how could they not pay athletes or at least extend worker's rights?
There would be good reasons for supporting the prohibition against paying college athletes if the NCAA's claim were true that big-time college athletes – like those who will electrify the crowds at this year's Final Four – are merely "amateurs" engaged in sport during their free time. That claim, though, has absolutely no support in recent history, aside from some Division III exceptions.
When I played football for Notre Dame in the 1960s, the NCAA had already compromised its half-century commitment to amateur principles. In 1957, after years of intense internal debate, the NCAA caved under pressure to subsidize athletes, and voted to allow athletic scholarships. It was at this point that commercialized college sports started down the slippery slope toward open professionalism.
At first, NCAA rules allowed these scholarships to be awarded for four years, as I was assured mine would be when I was recruited in the 1960s – regardless of my performance on the athletic field. Unfortunately, since I graduated, scholarships have taken on the trappings of an employment contract.
At the height of student revolts on college campuses in 1967, the association adopted rules that allowed the immediate termination of scholarship aid to athletes who challenge the authority of a coach or withdraw from sports voluntarily. In 1973, four-year scholarships were relegated to the scrap heap. Today, scholarships are awarded on a year-to-year basis. Athletes who have been injured or who turn out to be recruiting mistakes can be fired.
During the past four decades, the NCAA has crafted a payment system that provides a relatively cheap and steady supply of blue-chip athletes for the burgeoning business of collegiate sports and gives coaches the kind of control over them that employers have over employees. It is little wonder that a recent survey of college athletes by the NCAA found that the majority of those polled identify themselves more as athletes than as students.
At schools that award no athletic scholarships, such as those in the Ivy League or the NCAA's Division III, athletes are students first, and even though athletes get a break in admissions, scandals like those that plague big-time college sports are rare.
However, athletes who are recruited and subsidized to provide commercial entertainment for millions of Americans are a very different matter. Because they are already essentially paid to play, they deserve the same rights and benefits as other employees, including medical benefits, workers' compensation when injured, and the right to use their God-given talents to build some financial security for their families while still in college. The denial of these rights is morally unconscionable.
At present, a fairly small number of athletes, many of them African-American football and basketball players, produce much of the revenue that keeps entire athletic programs afloat. Because most athletic programs run deficits, paying these athletes a salary of some kind would be a stretch. At the very least, however, the athletes who put fans in the seats and in front of TV sets deserve a genuine opportunity to receive the education they were promised and a stipend to cover the full cost of their education.
These athletes also need players' associations to bargain for better medical benefits and the right to engage in the same kinds of entrepreneurial ventures that are the stock and trade of celebrity coaches. Scholarship athletes should be able to endorse products, accept pay for speaking engagements, and get a cut of the profits universities make by marketing their images. They should also be allowed to have agents to help them plan their financial futures.
In past decades, the NCAA substituted a counterfeit version of amateurism for the real thing. It happened so slowly that most people did not notice. As college sports moves into the second decade of the new millennium, athletes will undoubtedly organize to demand a bigger share of the money. When this occurs, one can only hope that the NCAA will abandon its present course toward building a sports entertainment empire and consider a return to bona-fide amateurism.
• Allen Sack, a professor at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame's 1966 National Championship football team. His new book is "Counterfeit Amateurism: An Athlete's Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism."