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Print Text Size A litany of scandals in recent years have made the corruption of college sports constant front-page news.
We profess outrage each time we learn that yet another student-athlete has been taking money under the table. But the real scandal is the very structure of college sports, wherein student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves.
Here, a leading civil-rights historian makes the case for paying college athletes—and reveals how a spate of lawsuits working their way through the courts could destroy the NCAA. Or buy your coach. These were eminent reformers—among them the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, two former heads of the U.
Olympic Committee, and several university presidents and chancellors. The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that takes an interest in college athletics as part of its concern with civic life, had tasked them with saving college sports from runaway commercialism as embodied by the likes of Vaccaro, who, since signing his pioneering shoe contract with Michael Jordan in , had built sponsorship empires successively at Nike, Adidas, and Reebok.
I can only offer it. In , despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference SEC , became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.
The University of Michigan spent almost four times that much to expand its Big House. Friday insisted that for the networks, paying huge sums to universities was a bargain.
They bring the camera and turn it on. The United States is the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning.
This should not, in and of itself, be controversial. College athletics are rooted in the classical ideal of Mens sana in corpore sano—a sound mind in a sound body—and who would argue with that?
College sports are deeply inscribed in the culture of our nation. Half a million young men and women play competitive intercollegiate sports each year. Millions of spectators flock into football stadiums each Saturday in the fall, and tens of millions more watch on television.
The March Madness basketball tournament each spring has become a major national event, with upwards of 80 million watching it on television and talking about the games around the office water cooler.
ESPN has spawned ESPNU, a channel dedicated to college sports, and Fox Sports and other cable outlets are developing channels exclusively to cover sports from specific regions or divisions. With so many people paying for tickets and watching on television, college sports has become Very Big Business.
When you combine so much money with such high, almost tribal, stakes—football boosters are famously rabid in their zeal to have their alma mater win—corruption is likely to follow. Scandal after scandal has rocked college sports. Among other charges, Bush and members of his family were alleged to have received free airfare and limousine rides, a car, and a rent-free home in San Diego, from sports agents who wanted Bush as a client.
Jim Tressel, the highly successful head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, resigned last spring after the NCAA alleged he had feigned ignorance of rules violations by players on his team. At least 28 players over the course of the previous nine seasons, according to Sports Illustrated, had traded autographs, jerseys, and other team memorabilia in exchange for tattoos or cash at a tattoo parlor in Columbus, in violation of NCAA rules.
Late this summer, Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA was investigating allegations that a University of Miami booster had given millions of dollars in illicit cash and services to more than 70 Hurricanes football players over eight years.
The list of scandals goes on. With each revelation, there is much wringing of hands. Observers on all sides express jumbled emotions about youth and innocence, venting against professional mores or greedy amateurs.
The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not. Amateurism is the whole point, they say.
Paid athletes would destroy the integrity and appeal of college sports.
Many former college athletes object that money would have spoiled the sanctity of the bond they enjoyed with their teammates. I, too, once shuddered instinctively at the notion of paid college athletes.
Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.
Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized.
But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes. The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel. Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless.
The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Founding Myths From the start, amateurism in college sports has been honored more often in principle than in fact; the NCAA was built of a mixture of noble and venal impulses.
In the late 19th century, intellectuals believed that the sporting arena simulated an impending age of Darwinian struggle. As though heeding this warning, ingenious students turned variations on rugby into a toughening agent.
Today a plaque in New Brunswick, New Jersey, commemorates the first college game, on November 6, , when Rutgers beat Princeton 6—4. He conceived functional designations for players, coining terms such as quarterback. His game remained violent by design. Three years later, the continuing mayhem prompted the Harvard faculty to take the first of two votes to abolish football.
In , fervent alumni built Harvard Stadium with zero college funds. A newspaper story from that year, illustrated with the Grim Reaper laughing on a goalpost, counted 25 college players killed during football season. A fairy-tale version of the founding of the NCAA holds that President Theodore Roosevelt, upset by a photograph of a bloodied Swarthmore College player, vowed to civilize or destroy football.
The real story is that Roosevelt maneuvered shrewdly to preserve the sport—and give a boost to his beloved Harvard. At a stroke, Roosevelt saved football and dethroned Yale. For nearly 50 years, the NCAA, with no real authority and no staff to speak of, enshrined amateur ideals that it was helpless to enforce.
Not until did it gain the power even to mandate helmets. Fans ignored the uproar, and two-thirds of the colleges mentioned told The New York Times that they planned no changes.