It’s that time of year again, summer is coming to a close and the smell of pigskin is in the air. School is back in session and a certain select group of young men and women will be forced to balance the commitment of playing Division-1 athletics with the pressure of pursuing a four-year degree. One of the most unassailable ideas in all of sports is the nobility of the student-athlete and the absolute necessity of maintaining the spirit of amateurism in colligate athletics. But with literally billions of dollars changing hands each year there are those who claim that rather than being educational opportunities these athletic programs are exploitative entities that act as little more than farm teams for the professional sports leagues. We’re going to examine the veracity of those claims in this edition of In Theory: Student-Athletes.
How its supposed to work: Exemplary high school athletes are offered scholarships that cover part or all of their tuition, room, and board at a university and in exchange, they agree to be a part of the university’s athletic program (i.e. play for their sports teams). The idea is to reward the extra time and effort it takes to be a part of the athletic program with an incentive. Giving student who might not have other opportunities the chance to earn a college degree. The university gets a well-rounded student body, teams that help shape and boost campus culture, and revenue streams they can use to help fund other less visible parts of the university. All while maintaining a tradition of amateurism that has been a bedrock principle of athletic achievement for centuries. These athletes compete for the love of the game.
How it actually works: Well let’s dismiss this notion of the nobility of amateurism right off the top. It’s a bullshit concept created by the European Aristocracy to keep poor people from competing with them in athletic endeavour. Poor people don’t have time to commit to training if they can’t make a living at a sport. So sports like polo, cricket, tennis, and golf were the sole province of rich assholes who lived off inherited money and never had to work a day in their lives. The notion immigrated to the US via golf, tennis, and the Olympics and worked its way into the Ivy League and then to the rest of America’s universities. Once you’ve exposed the “For love of the game” fantasy for the socioeconomic exclusionary tactic it is, you’re left to determine if four years of room, board, and a degree at the end is worth the value the university receives in exchange. Well first off, graduation rates for student-athletes hover between the 60%-70% range most years. And most of those degrees come in questionable subject matters that are more often than not easy course designed to keep athletes eligible rather than actually educate them. The majority of student-athletes time is not spent in the classroom but rather at practice. It is clear that for most division one schools the emphasis is on athletics over academics. In fact in the case of Penn St and Michigan St. The universities valued athletics so highly they covered up decades of sexual abuse committed by members of their athletic programs. Of course those programs are still around whereas students are punished for such grievous crimes as accepting an extra plate of spaghetti at a fundraiser or the gift of a suit so that you have one to wear to your father’s funeral. To be honest this blog isn’t long enough to cover all the way college athletics is exploitative. I mean you’ve got to be a real asshole to take a kid’s scholarship away because he got hurt playing on your team. “We’re so sorry you’ll never walk without a limp again. By the way since you can’t play ball anymore we’re revoking your scholarship. Please vacate your dorm by the end of the term.” How’s that for a noble spirit of amateurism?
How do we fix it: The most obvious fix is to treat student-athletes like university employees. Paying them a salary, granting them workers comp, and giving them negotiating power over their working conditions. Considering their coaches all make millions of dollars and the universities make tens of millions of dollars and the networks rake in hundreds of millions of dollars that doesn’t seem like a big ask. Or conversely forbid the games to be televised, remove all sponsorships, and get all the money out of college sports which would mark a return to an equal exchange between these students services and the universities return from those services. If you’re looking for something a bit more reasonable and obtainable, pin postseason eligibility to graduation rates and get rid of one-and-dones by making all players eligible to go professional in every sport at 18.
The bottom line is that yes the NCAA is highly exploitative and the only real solution is for them to start paying their athletes. Sure the notion of student-athletes playing “For love of the game” sounds romantic and noble but its really just a cover for unfair labor practices.