Instead of gnashing our teeth over players getting paid and strikes for bigger dorm rooms, how come more attention isn’t being paid to how college football got to this point in the first place? Whatever reality the NCAA’s ideal of amateurism was initially grounded in is long gone. What’s left is little more than a myth.
If we make sports the embodiment of American ideals, it makes a certain amount of sense, however irrational it is, that we want athletes to focus on something other than money. It would be too uncomfortable to acknowledge that the games we set up as objects of worship are really just a way for us to venerate a few talented people for extracting the highest possible compensation in exchange for their gifts.
But the lie the myth of amateurism lets us tell about college is at least as pernicious as the one it perpetuates about our love of sports. Suggesting that the hours athletes spend training, in practice, in strategy sessions and on the field or court represent just an activity, rather than a job, is a way of trying to shrink the definition of work to a level we are comfortable with…
Athletes are generating revenue for their schools through ticket sales and broadcast fees, while their peers may be simply working for the money to pay for tuition, room and board, and books. But either way, they are participants in a system that makes a lot of money for colleges and universities, even as students spend time working rather than having an idealized and balanced college experience.
Think about all the changes that have occurred across the college athletic landscape in the last half century: the demise of the four-year scholarship, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, an increase in the length of the regular season, conference championship games, expanded postseasons, the joke that is “voluntary” summer practice, conference realignment and expansion, etc. What it all adds up to is a relentless march of commercialization as academic institutions look to monetize college athletics as much as possible.
The idea that college administrators, conference commissioners and coaches are free to frolic like Scrooge McDuck in the money while insisting that student-athletes must not take part in receiving the benefits of the revenue stream as well as accepting without question the burdens placed upon them by the powers that be placating the commercial interests creating that stream is quaint at best and remarkably cynical at worst when you realize that the suits running the show are using amateurism as a sales tool to promote college athletics to the public.
That’s how you get Mark Emmert promoting the false dichotomy of “do you want to have college sports played by unionized employees of universities or do you want to have them be college students playing games?” with a straight face. It’s either players play for love or money – nothing in between. And he gets away with it because in loving the romance that amateurism represents, we’re willing to be deceived.
The truth is that today, big time college sports are as much a commercial enterprise as any professional sports league. And until we’re all willing to admit that, nobody on the management side of college athletics is going to take the hard step of looking at what’s really worth preserving and moving to compromise on the rest, for the greater good.