And, as Andy Schwartz tells it, the NCAA has always paid players.
Contrary to popular belief, the NCAA has only ever truly enforced a nationwide prohibition on payments to athletes for three years—from 1948 to 1951. Prior to that, there was no NCAA-wide rule on scholarships at all, meaning that the full flowering of the popularity of college football prior to World War II was achieved without any intervention from any centralized, faux-regulatory body. Imagine it—all that sis-boom-bah and yet no national price fixing!
In 1948 that changed. The NCAA passed what was called the “Sanity Code,” which said that any form of merit pay to an athlete in exchange for his services as an athlete was forbidden, and any school that violated that policy would be boycotted by all other members of the NCAA. To be clear, what we now think of as athletic scholarships were item number one on this list of banned payments. In the Sanity Code world, an athletic scholarship was—gasp—pay for play.
By 1951, the NCAA had identified seven schools—BC, The Citadel, Maryland, Villanova, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and VMI—that were, apparently insanely, paying football players through athletic scholarships. The full NCAA membership, when asked to enforce the Sanity Code, had a moment of “there but for the grace of God go I” and realized that because they were also providing athletic scholarships, if they knocked out Virginia Tech, the next knock on the door in the night might be to haul them in to be judged for their own insanity.
So neither Virginia Tech nor its fellow “Seven Sinners” were punished and the Sanity Code, while it stayed on the books for a few more years, was left unenforced.
In the years since, the NCAA has never tried to prohibit athletes from receiving some form of athletic pay for their services. So while you often hear people decrying the horrors that would emerge if college athletes were to be paid, with the exception of those three years, college athletes have been paid. Often these scholarships include a monthly check that players use to pay their rent and buy food with. Sort of like everyone else does with the checks their employers give them.
Over the years, the only thing that really changes is its definition of pay. Or, to paraphrase the former leader of the free world, It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘pay’ is.
Throw unprecedented revenues together with doing what’s convenient and you’ve just created the perfect formula to lose in court.