Amateurism: The NCAA's Antiquated Charade

Cam Newton.jpgThis just in: many major college athletes, their families, and/or their representatives or handlers receive compensation for their services. On Thursday, Heisman Trophy frontrunner Cam Newton was (allegedly) added to the ever-growing list as ESPN reported that a man representing Newton solicited a six-figure payment in exchange for the star quarterback's college commitment. The man in question, former Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers, works for a company called Elite Football Preparation, where he is listed as an agent. Rogers purportedly sought $200,000 from Newton's prospective institutions, but reportedly offered Mississippi State a $20,000 discount due to Newton's affinity for the university and an existing relationship between Rogers and the Bulldogs' head coach, Dan Mullen. Newton eventually committed to Auburn, where he has led the Tigers to a 9-0 record and second place in the BCS standings. Both Mississippi State and Auburn have denied any wrongdoing, as has Newton's family, and Auburn chose to play Newton, fully aware of these allegations, maintaining that Newton "is eligible at the Auburn University, period," according to head coach Gene Chizik.

The allegations surrounding Newton, like those previously leveled against and ultimately confirmed regarding players from the University of North Carolina and the University of Alabama, among others, are no longer surprising, nor are they limited to college football. These alleged misdeeds are merely a microcosm of an inherent flaw with college athletics: the maintenance of an antiquated, nearly unenforceable NCAA mandate of amateurism.
For quite some time I was vehemently opposed to the notion of paying players. I viewed sports as a privilege, not a right, and deemed any violation of the rules enumerated by the governing body of college athletics reason enough for suspension or, depending on the severity of the infraction, termination of that privilege. I have come to realize (with the help of Jay Bilas) that the previous statement is a half-truth. Sports are a privilege, not a right, but it has become increasingly evident that the NCAA rulebook is inherently flawed.

The NCAA has positioned itself as the sole party with the right to extend benefits to athletes, namely a college education. The idea that outside compensation would be prohibitively corrupting to the athlete, and would of course violate the sacred principle of amateurism, is at best misguided and at worst interventionist and exclusionary. The NCAA itself is generally the first to flout basic amateurism, bestowing an athlete with an education often valued in excess of $100,000. To then prevent an athlete from pursuing additional compensation as dictated by the open market creates an environment vulnerable to and rife with the corruption the NCAA so desperately seeks to avoid.
In many instances, a college student will pursue part-time employment in conjunction with their studies - either externally or through a university work-study program - in an effort to supplement their tuition payments or merely to acquire spending money. Unfortunately, the time required to play a college sport (particularly a highly-scrutinized revenue generating sport like football or basketball) often makes it impractical for a player to take a side job in addition to their academic requirements. (The seriousness and rigor of those requirements for a major college athlete may be questioned - with varying levels of legitimacy - but that is a story/argument for another time.)

While many would maintain that participation in college sports is a choice (it is) and that a number of these players will ultimately earn money from sports playing professionally (they will), those are not grounds to deny them the opportunity to profit from their energy, commitment, and efforts. Not only does a college sport allow for 20 hours a week in practice time (and countless more in individual and group work without the presence of a coach), but also a significant number of these athletes come from homes and environments in which money is scarce, and as such these individuals need additional income the most. I am not advocating that institutions pay athletes, nor am I suggesting that athletes be free of academic eligibility requirements. (Whether those are established and regulated by an overarching body or determined on an institutional basis is yet another, separate story.) I am simply suggesting - and agreeing with Bilas - that players not be limited in their attempts to realize their true market value.

Take two other cases involving notable players over the years. Just this year, Georgia star receiver and presumptive first round pick A.J. Green served a four-game suspension for selling his game-worn jersey from last season's Independence Bowl. The university makes countless dollars through the sales of its most popular player's jersey; however, the player himself never sees any monetary benefits for his efforts. In another example, Ohio State quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was suspended from the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the 2005 season opener for accepting $500 from a Buckeye booster. If any other college student was approached and offered $500, most would accept it without a second thought from themselves or any board of compliance. While these players obviously possess a higher, more recognizable profile than a majority of their classmates, that should not preclude them from accepting external monetary compensation. Although Smith's case is certainly far more questionable due to any potential institutional association the booster may have, that does not change the fact that just about any college student would - and could - accept such an offer.

Despite the argument I have presented, I don't know that I have come around fully to Bilas's suggestions. A significant part of me still firmly believes in the principle of amateurism and yearns for the romanticized "love of the game" with which college athletics is so frequently associated. The pure emotion evident with every championship win and heartbreaking loss, to me, illustrates the true value of sports, both for the spectators and the participants. That aside, it would be unbelievably naïve to suggest that this basic pleasure is sufficient when myriad other rewards are available. At the very least, it's safe to say that my eyes have been opened to an alternative scenario.

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