Bust the Amateur Myth

Indiana U.

Frank DeFord8
December 11, 2011

The situation in big-time college sports in the United States—essentially football and men's basketball—is not just scandalous. It is immoral.

Many international sports where financial profits are made used to be amateur. Anyway, they were allegedly amateur, but were—as is always the case where money is mixed with forced pro bono performing—corrupted by under-the-table payments and other hanky-panky. Eventually the inability of this deceitful system ever to work was acknowledged by the Olympics and various world athletic federations, and sports such as tennis, track and field, swimming, skiing, rugby, and basketball became honestly professional.

As a consequence, here today in the United States—that bastion of both freedom and capitalism—college football and basketball players are the only athletes in the world who are denied payment for their services in sports where significant sums of money are involved. Especially as the colleges make scores of millions of dollars from box-office and television revenue, when coaches are paid seven-figure contracts, and all sorts of others (including journalists) make handsome salaries on the backs of these young players, it is unconscionable that athletes are not paid­—and not just paid token fees but free-market salaries commensurate with what they bring in to the institution they represent.

Why is college sports the only province where "amateurism" is held out as an ideal? Who would suggest that artists, writers, musicians, or dancers should not only work for free but also do so while others profit from their talent? This canard persists only to maintain an indefensible, antiquated system.

Colleges protest they can't afford to pay the performers. If so, they should abandon the business of sports—or, anyway, downgrade to Division III or only finance intramurals. Certainly, athletics is a valuable discipline, and a sound mind in a sound body is devoutly to be wished for, but having traveling sports teams is not a requisite for higher education. Either make the economic model work fairly, or get out of the business. To claim that you make millions of dollars but can't pay the performers is sophistry—no less than saying that you are operating a wonderful restaurant except for the incidental fact that you can't pay the cooks and the waiters (although the entrée prices are sky-high and the maitre d' is magnificently recompensed).

Likewise, there is no justification that football and basketball must pay the freight for other so-called "nonrevenue" sports. If football makes the money, the money should go to those who fill up the stadiums and attract the television bounty. In the current situation, a poor football player is not only working for free (and risking concussions and lifelong obesity), but he is, essentially, paying for a volleyball player's scholarship and a swimming coach's salary.

Athletic scholarships should be discontinued—except for the football and basketball players who desire them. The players in the two "revenue sports" would officially be school employees and only, at their option, students. They would have four years of athletic eligibility. Whether or not they wish to attend class and work toward a degree would be their choice. This would eliminate all the fraud attendant to "student" athletes getting into college and staying eligible.

If colleges wanted to provide scholarships for athletes other than football or basketball players, the most talented could earn them—but only in open competition among all students with proficiency in some extracurricular activity. In other words, athletes should be treated no differently than undergraduate actors, artists, musicians, and writers.

If the alumni boosters don't like this they can, for their amusement, start their own leagues that don't tarnish academia. Or they could pay for scholarships for bright and needy high-school students who wish to go to college for an education.

Frank Deford is an author, journalist, and commentator. His work appears in Sports Illustrated and on National Public Radio and HBO. His most recent novel is Bliss, Remembered.