Two weeks ago, as Americans were settling into the harvest comfort of football Saturdays, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling in the antitrust suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The decision drew blood on both sides. The court sided with the players in affirming that the NCAA is not immune to antitrust regulation, but simultaneously reversed a lower-court ruling that would have granted former athletes as much as five thousand dollars a year in deferred compensation—essentially back pay—for the use of their images in video games and other commercial ventures. At the same time, the court required that the NCAA increase scholarship payouts to cover the full cost of college attendance, thus making mandatory an option that the NCAA first permitted a few years ago.
These legal niceties did very little to address the deeper question of fairness. The NCAA ideal of amateurism in college athletics has come to border on farce. In the highest-revenue sports—football and basketball—the argument in favor of paying players is so searingly obvious as to seem undeniable. These athletes collectively generate tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars annually for their schools. Many college coaches are the highest-paid public employees in their states—a five-million-dollar salary is no longer eye-popping—and that paycheck doesn’t include gifts from boosters, who will occasionally pay for a coach’s house to make sure that he stays happy.
The Only Game in Town
But this understates the exploitation. The athletes in major football and men’s basketball programs are disproportionately black, many from poor and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. For too many of them, the NCAA is the only game in town. In some dispiriting cases, the students are so unprepared that academic failure seems inevitable. In worse cases still, their scholarships are cynically undermined by the schools themselves. Coaches steer students into empty classes (what one recent report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill characterized as a “shadow curriculum”) or supply so-called academic support that amounts to cheating. It hardly seems coincidental, then, that sports with less African-American participation, such as baseball and hockey, maintain robust minor-league systems without the national gnashing of teeth.
And yet I believe that the drive to pay college athletes is a grave mistake—not because it misdiagnoses the disease but because it suggests that the only cure is to put the patient out of his misery. It fails, first of all, to recognize the value of sports as a part of education. This value can be seen in the countless student athletes, from gymnasts to softball players, who pour hours of work into training and competing with no hope of going pro. (Similarly, many of those in even the biggest sports show dedication long after it is clear that they will never be professionals.)
College Fans Seek a Deep Connection
This value is again revealed in the fact that many NCAA teams are vastly more popular than their professional counterparts. My beloved Michigan Wolverines pack the Big House with more than a hundred thousand spectators each football Saturday; the Detroit Lions, meanwhile, do not. (I know, I know—it’s the Lions. That’s why their stadium is smaller.) Minor-league arenas attract even fewer spectators. Fans are not only seeking athletic excellence as such—the biggest and fastest players in descending order. Our connection to the athletes is deeper. These student athletes walk the same halls, have the same professors, and sweat the same midterms that we did, however long ago. At the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where I once taught, the inscription on the statue of Alma Mater reads, “To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings.” It’s easy to dismiss that sentiment as saccharine, but it gets at an important truth: we are embedded in our cultures and social groups, and we revel in their excellence.
Paying student athletes erodes that association. If a high-school football prodigy reported that he chose Michigan not for its academic quality, tradition, or beautiful campus but because it outbid all other suitors, a connection to the university’s values would be lost. This is not naïve idealism. Auburn fans still bristle at accusations that Cam Newton auctioned them his services; prideful Michigan fans still smart over the sanctions surrounding Chris Webber, and over stinging comments intimating that he might just as well have attended a rival school. These episodes reveal what happens when college sports are reduced to a market; that this occurs all too often already is no reason to surrender to it.
The law plays a critical role here, and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling can be a constructive step. It recognizes that the NCAA is subject to antitrust regulation—unlike, say, Major League Baseball—and refuses to put a monetary value on college sports. In the future, Congress could, through antitrust and commerce legislation, promote a more just landscape in college and professional sports. Professional leagues, in particular, could be encouraged to invest more seriously in their minor-league programs—the N.B.A. Development League is at least the right idea—and drop the relevant age restrictions. This would mean that the extraordinary few could go pro out of high school, and some other highfliers, could enter the developmental leagues, paid whatever the market will bear. College sports might well lose some spectacular stars, but the stars alone were never really the point.
None of this would be easy to accomplish, of course, given the money that is at stake, and there would be casualties. Some of the players who might at least have been exposed to college would forgo it entirely. We might lose the story of the exceptional athlete, often poor and dark-skinned, who goes to school solely to play sports but then sees the world widen before him. Nor should we imagine that those who opt for the developmental leagues have made it; minor-league baseball and the lower tiers of European soccer remind us how thankless and poorly compensated such a life can be. But this is no less true for those who skip college to pursue music or theatre, and, more to the point, there is no reason to think that we wouldn’t hear stories of intellectual discovery among slightly less athletically gifted athletes from the same streets. Even if we cannot save sports (or music, or theatre) from its high-risk nature, we can go some way toward making sure that a few élite college programs are not unduly feeding off it.
At sports bars, when I hear people dismiss these (or other) ideas for preserving college amateurism, I realize that it’s not simply a question of their being overwhelmed by the practical difficulties involved. It is, rather, another manifestation of that corrosive American belief that anything that has value must also have a price. The recent ruling, though, hints at a path ahead, a way to cheer for our student athletes without being held hostage to money, exploitation, racism, or cynicism.
Ekow N. Yankah is a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City. In the following viewpoint, he argues that college sports hold significant non-monetary benefits, describing the educational value of sports and the connection felt among athletes and fans. Yankah acknowledges that the arguments in favor of paying football and basketball players seem undeniable, considering the revenue generated by the athletes’ efforts and the substantial salaries collected by coaches. However, he argues that to do so would overlook the larger problems of college sports, including issues of money, exploitation, racism, and cynicism. Yankah suggests that exceptional players be permitted to enter directly into the professional major and minor leagues, while their slightly less gifted peers help preserve the amateur nature of college athletics.
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