Time for the NCAA to redefine sports

A Supreme Court ruling against limits on compensation to college athletes may add to the drive to ensure a purity of motives in sports.

Runners compete in the women's steeplechase at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, June 12, 2021, in Eugene, Ore.

It’s back to the locker room for the NCAA. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the body which governs college sports must not limit education-related perks, such as computers or cars, for its athletes. In essence, the high court said the organization’s definition of “amateur” – which the nine justices put in quotes – needs a rethink.

For now, the ruling implies that the National Collegiate Athletic Association may no longer prevent compensation to players under the cloak that it is protecting sports. “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion. “But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

The ruling comes as at least six states are moving to allow college athletes to make money from their names, images, and likenesses. That trend adds to the burden of the NCAA to stop defining the amateur status of its athletes mainly by what they are not – paid professionals. The court found little evidence that fans care much about whether athletes are paid or not.

The ruling is only the latest challenge to sports officials worldwide to ensure the integrity of sports. The United States, for example, has joined Europe and Asia in allowing gambling on sports – and in trying to fend off the influence of criminal syndicates on players, coaches, and referees. Cheating scandals have rocked many sports, especially in the use of enhancement substances, or doping. Pro baseball is now contending with pitchers who doctor balls to make them spin better.

While sports bodies keep setting more rules to protect a “level playing field” in competitive sports, some have taken a different approach. After the International Olympic Committee created the World Anti-Doping Agency, that body tried to define “the spirit of sport” to help athletes make the right choices. A special panel defined the spirit of sport to be “fair play and honesty, health, excellence in performance, fun and joy, respect for self and other participants, and courage among others.”

That sports even have ideals, or a purity free of material interests, is wrapped up in phrases such as “the love of the game” or “sport for the sake of sport.” Michael Sandel, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard University, defines athletics as gifted “talents and powers [that] are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and to exercise them.”

Athletic competitions, he argues, must “fit with the excellences essential to the sport.” Rules for sport must make sure sports do not “fade into spectacle, a course of amusement rather than a subject of appreciation.”

So, yes, the NCAA and other sports bodies need to get out their chalkboards and prep for a better definition of what is purity in sports, one that ensures they remain free of profit motives, drugs, and gambling.

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