Shamateurism: NCAA on the Ropes

College athletics are among the most lucrative industries in America. Schools compete in a mad grab for highly talented athletes that is the sports world’s equivalent of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Once these athletes are in the fold, the schools–motivated by sickening self interest–treat these kids as property and in many cases abuse their charge as custodian of these kids. Though schools need to be taken to task for the institutional mistreatment of athletes, the real culprit in all of this is the NCAA. 

Presently, we have a story developing about the head coach for Illinois football, Tim Beckman. The story goes–and all we have is accusation and speculation at this point–that Beckman is a tyrant. He purportedly wields scholarships over kids as leverage to force intended behaviors. A former offensive lineman of his has claimed that Beckman coerced him into serious knee surgery and forced him to return to sport far sooner than advisable. Additionally, another story has surfaced that Beckman kicked a player off the team only to have his decision overturned by the school. Subsequently, Beckman decided to require absurdly frequent drug tests and tried to trick the player into signing away his scholarship. There is only one thing that has fostered this kind of environment: the notion of Amateurism in College Athletics.

If–I can’t stress enough that we are still at if–either of these stories turn out to be even remotely true, Beckman needs to be fired and thrown out of the profession–not to mention taken to court over his mistreatment of players. Coaching is a privilege, and the position ought to be respected, not reviled. Still, this behavior by Beckman is not peculiar, as there are likely many coaches who abuse their power. This illuminates on the idea of Amaterism, and the transgressions being conducted under its name. Athletes have no rights; Amateurism has made them indentured servants. 

We find ourselves in a time where institutions are at war with their very students–not all of them, just the athlete class. It draws a strong analog to the the gladiatorial games and circus races of Ancient Rome. Gladiators and charioteers were slaves, but were held in immensely high esteem because of their ability to entertain the privileged Romans. Sound familiar? These kids have all the leverage in the world on National Signing Day, and in no time at all, that is gone and they are at the mercy of their chosen school. It has figuratively become a “sign your life away” set of circumstances. 

How did we get here?

We have always been able to count on schools and institutions to operate in their own self-interest. And, if left unchecked, schools would treat their athletes even worse and justify everything they do with the free education the athlete receives. An education, in some cases, that does not matter because the athlete never completes his degree requirements before leaving for the pros. 

So, schools may be more self-interested now than they were, but that’s only been a marginal increment. The NCAA has incubated this environment and deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the institutional class warfare that has resulted.

It all starts with the hamfisted reinforcement of the idea of amateurism in college athletics. By making the players amateurs–read volunteers–the schools do not have to provide the players employee protections that would otherwise be available. These schools use the fact that they are picking up the tab for the athletes’ education as a silver bullet. Meanwhile, these athletes generate tens of millions of dollars for good schools, and see virtually none of it returned their way.

Further, as the NCAA has evolved, so have its constraints on payments to players–and players receiving any kind of compensation. Most important has been the NCAA’s determination that college athletes cannot profit off their likeness. Basically, this means that the athletes cannot make money in any way by selling themselves as athletes. This means no autographs for money, no endorsements, no likeness in video games, etc. In a way, this has given them less rights than the average student. 

Let me explain. 

Say a computer science major and business major, using what they learned in class, develop the next Facebook. While still enrolled, this new social media platform skyrockets and they begin monetizing it through having subscription payments, ad revenue, or something else. Now, let’s say they gain national acclaim and begin appearing in advertisements and paid speaking engagements, all while still technically students. These students get to keep the money they make and the school cannot seek reprisal against them for profiting off their likeness. This luxury just isn’t afforded to athletes. 

Because of the NCAA’s archaic and draconian amateurism sham, schools make millions of dollars off their athletes at the cost of pennies on the dollar. The marginal cost of adding one more student to the rolls is nowhere close to the actual tuition bill. So, saying they receive free attendance is a little absurd seeing as it amounts to maybe a few thousand dollars per athlete per year in actual costs to the school. 

Now, on the face, I am in favor of finding a way to compensate the players without paying them outright. Many schools do this by providing better meal benefits than regular students, free apparel and electronics, or by building state of the art athlete-only complexes. And these efforts should be taken into account. However, as against direct pay as I am, it is patently unfair that athletes who are successful in college cannot profit from their likeness. And fairness to these kids should trump any principled defense of pay for athletes. If the market is going to place a value on a star quarterback’s time, why shouldn’t they benefit? Because they’re amateurs and this is amateur athletics? Give me a break. 

The NCAA has become an incredibly profitable business; coaches and administrators are certainly professionals. So, it seems like the only amateurism to speak of is the player. And outright denial any compensation in the name of amateurism alone is nothing short of a great fraud. It draws an uncomfortable parallel to sweatshops making fortunes on the backs of an exploited labor force. 

Make no mistake, pay for play is coming in college athletics. The “how” is something I will try to address in another article. The NCAA will be forced to drop its act one way or another. With each story that surfaces about institutions abusing their power, we draw one step closer to solving this problem with the institutional class warfare. The NCAA may want to consider getting in front of the changing landscape so as not to be dragged along as the ground shifts beneath their feet. 

I have a feeling the NCAA won’t be able to dismiss these stories as isolated instances for much longer. 

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