I admit it: I may have been wrong. As recently as a year ago, I wrote an essay in these pages explaining why the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s so-called amateur model would not break apart.
It has not occurred yet, but many signs point toward the end of the NCAA’s unpaid, never-allowed-to-be-paid college athlete.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote College Sports Inc. and in the introduction disputed the NCAA’s “myth” that “College athletes are amateurs…. Reality: A school gives an athlete [particularly football and men’s basketball players] a full-ride grant in exchange for the athlete’s services in a commercial entertainment venture, namely playing on one of the school’s sports teams.”
The main reaction to that argument by college sports fans, at least those who wrote or spoke to me, was “You’re crazy,” or, more politely, “You don’t understand the reality of the amateur student-athlete”; in addition, many members of the sports media, in interviews and book reviews, echoed those sentiments. Both groups also dismissed the book’s title and denied the commercialism of big-time college sports. (The editors of Inside Higher Ed, in their previous capacity, were among the few who took the book’s arguments seriously.)
In the years since then, as the commercialism of big-time college football and basketball multiplied geometrically, fewer and fewer people told me that I was “crazy” and that the NCAA’s “student-athlete” model worked well, especially in the major revenue sports. Many more people started to share my point of view and argue for better compensation for athletes than athletic scholarships.
When asked whether anything could change the system, I always replied that reform could not come from within — the NCAA had billions of reasons, most of them in U.S. currency, to maintain the status quo. But change could come from outside, especially if an athlete brought a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s “amateur model” and the courts found in the athlete’s favor.
Frankly, I was skeptical about that ever happening: the athlete would need to find a high-powered law firm that could fight and beat the NCAA’s legion of well-paid lawyers; in addition, if the athlete was still playing college sports, he or she would have to deal with a head coach and assistants who would probably be very hostile to the lawsuit and who also controlled the athlete’s playing time.
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