The evolution of amateurism

I’ve never been a big fan of Andrew Zimbalist, so if there’s a part of something he’s authored that resonates with me… well, you read this:

Today, “pay for play” refers to compensating an athlete as an employee. Before 1957, it meant awarding athletic scholarships. That year, the NCAA coined and mandated the term “student athlete” as part of an effort to protect itself from workers’ compensation claims.

As college sports grew and became less a campus extracurricular than a lucrative business enterprise, programs complained about and violated rules so often that the NCAA took step after step away from its original notion of amateurism, allowing athletic scholarships in 1948 and termination of financial aid if a student stopped playing in 1967, permitting coverage of educational expenses in 1957, and prohibiting multiyear scholarships in 1973.

One thing you can say about that trend is that it doesn’t favor the player.  The context makes it hard to disagree with his argument.

“In short, amateurism in intercollegiate athletics is whatever the NCAA says it is,” reads the report, written by Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, and Allen Sack, president of the Drake Group, which advocates for academic integrity and greater balance in college athletics. “The NCAA maintains its own, idiosyncratic, changing, frequently arbitrary, and often illogical definition of amateurism. NCAA restrictions on college athletes’ free participation in the lucrative market for their images, likenesses and names are obviously not necessary to uphold the principles of amateurism, which are constantly changing to meet industry needs.”

When students become athletes, they sign an agreement with the NCAA that essentially gives the association ownership over their names and images. The NCAA and video game companies can profit from using photos of the athletes or  images that strongly resemble them for as long as they like, and the athletes never see a penny.

Sack, a professor of sport management at the University of New Haven, said that to share this revenue with athletes “is no more a violation of amateurism than paying for their educations, or conditioning the renewal of their scholarships each year on athletic performance.”

Compare that with the NCAA’s official position on O’Bannon, which is that it doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“Amateurism is what separates college sports from pro sports, and the NCAA membership has decided that those who participate in intercollegiate athletics should be students first and not paid professional athletes,” he said. “The NCAA does not limit how a student-athlete takes advantage of his or her likeness after college.”

That’s some impressive smoke blowing there.


Filed under It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

9 responses to “The evolution of amateurism

  1. Always Someone Else's Fault

    You can make compelling arguments for a scholarship as the primary compensation for playing a sport in college, revenue or non-revenue. But, I don’t think those arguments can be made any longer by the NCAA or on NCAA turf. It’s permanently lost its credibility. I wonder at what point the revenue-generating schools are going to realize that, and when they do, I wonder what action they will take.

    Is the O’Bannon suit against the schools and the NCAA? And if it’s against the NCAA, what happens if UCLA et al simply pull up stakes and abandon ship, to mix some metaphors?


  2. Darrron Rovelll

    The NCAA has based their entire system on a foundation that was fundamentally flawed. They can make as many changes to the system as they want to institute fairness and reality to amateurism, but the foundation of the system is still flawed. As a result, there will be corruption, rule breaking and in this case outright profiteering at the expense of their workforce.

    I predict that at some point, the NCAA including some of those in Division 1 are going to evolve into a some sort of “official” professional/D1/D3 hybrid. There will be athletes who are professional who receive renumeration in excess of the scholarship value and will have skin in the game in terms of endorsements, use of the likeness etc. They will make up a slight to moderate % of all student athletes but every school will have some. There will be “student-athletes” similar to the current model. These “student-athletes” will receive funds at or slightly above the scholarship value but their will be able to receive $$ from endorsements, etc. This pool will be larger than the “professionals” but a lot smaller than what it is now.

    The big change will be that most of the athletes (including football players) will end being D3 type athletes. They will not receive any payment for direct play and no scholarship relief. They will be able to hold jobs, earn endorsement $ that may come their way and control their likeness from media related businesses (though it probably it won’t be much $ anyway.) This will be the majority of the athletes on all campuses.


    • AlphaDawg

      How will ‘Title 9′(or is it Title 8?) play in that type of scenario?


      • Darrron Rovelll

        It is Title 9 and pretty much everyone agrees that Title 9 will not go away. It will need to be factored into the scenario.

        At its base form Title 9 ensures that the funding and support for male sports (including scholarship opportunities) is in compliance with female sports based on the student population. Athletic administrations will need to keep doing it regardless how collegiate sports evolve.

        I could see where we would pay Allison Schmitt more than a scholarship so she would stay at UGA and help us win a National Championship. I remember back in ’96, the gymnastics team lost 1 or 2 recruits who were coming to Athens but on the US Olympic Team that won the gold medal. They opted not to compete at the collegiate level in order to cash in on the endorsement opportunities.

        However, after reading this Luke Cyphers article:

        this may all come down to football. It is after all the only sport that is completely dependent on the school system for player development. If this really is the trend the NCAA may only be about big-time football and possibly big-time men’s & women’s basketball.


  3. Soo, what you’re saying NCAA is that the student is not a ‘paid professional athlete’ yet you’ll be the first one to tell us how much a scholarship is worth and the monetary value and expenses incurred with this unusual form of ‘amateurism ‘.


  4. Dog in Fla

    Here’s the Creationism Subcommittee on Definitions getting fed at an al fresco luncheon meeting. They were going to go ask Alice but apparently she left with Julie Roe Lach in a show of gender-solidarity


  5. Monday Night Frotteur

    I’m pretty sure that all of the people who support faux-amateurism are unaware of the history of concept.

    The NCAA’s position is pure definitional tautology.


  6. Mayor of Dawgtown

    NCAA=Situational ethics.


  7. GaskillDawg

    I was for a long time a believer that college athletics should be an amateur sport and that considering not only the value of the education, books and board, but also the value of no deductible no copay health insurance, the value of training (price the cost of the art gym memberships wit fitness instructors), free public relations service and free coaching, the athlete was compensated. However, once D-1 programs started paying coaches and administrators at such high levels I concluded that the institutions themselves had ceased to consider college sports as amateur sports for everyone but the players.

    I read the linked Andrew Zimbalist and Allen Sack report. Interesting rebuttal to the “college coaches salaries are simply the result of free market forces” argument; pointing out that factors such as compensation to labor (the players), taxes, and shareholders demanding dividend distributions or higher profits which affect salaries in the free market do not exist, and unlike a true free market athletic departments get subsidies from the university and state budgets.

    FBS programs will do just fine if they reduce coaches’ salaries and distribute money to all athletes. There will still be great coaches available; there are only 30 something NFL jobs and Les Miles can’t leave coaching and sell insurance for the same compensation.