In "The Shame of College Sports," Taylor Branch argues that college athletes should be paid. Agree or disagree.
Whether big-time college athletes should be paid is the wrong question. Given the historical record, which shows that the NCAA well knew that it had established a pay-for-play system with the creation of the athletic scholarship, that question is moot. To entertain it is to validate the cloak of fictions as manifest in terms like "student-athlete" and "amateurism" that form the basis for the NCAA's defense of business and educational practices that should be abolished.
The real question is why the NCAA has been permitted for over 60 years to get away with denying the full measure of the contributions athletes make who serve as the central attraction in college sport spectacle.
At the core of every position taken by the NCAA regarding athlete compensation is its principle of amateurism. Despite the central role that amateurism plays as a foundational principle on which the college sport enterprise is built, the manual itself is silent on the question of what an amateur is.
If the principle of amateurism is so central to the beating heart of the NCAA and serves as a rationale to deny athletes recognition as workers along with the protections and benefits associated with that status, then why no definition of amateur?
Walter Byers, former executive director of the NCAA, whom Branch quotes in the article, has an answer. It was Byers who observed, "Amateurism is not a moral issue; it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice."
That monopoly practice has resulted in a system of controls over college athletes lives that should inspire a healthy fear among anyone who cares about fair and equitable treatment in a democratic society.
We should be past the time when we fall for the NCAA party line that suggests that a "free education" is adequate compensation for college athletes who generate billions of dollars in revenue for corporate marketing and media partners. In a recent study I just completed in collaboration with the National College Players Association, we estimate that football players in Football Bowl Series institutions have an average market value of $121,048 (not including individual commercial endorsement potential). At the same time, due to the limitations of athletic scholarships, which do not even cover the full cost of attendance leaving an average shortfall of $3,222 to be covered by athletes on full scholarships, the average FBS "full" scholarship athlete earns approximately $2,000 below the poverty line.
As commercial interests in college sport continue to grow, the fictions understandably become more difficult to sustain. The shame rests not with college sports per se but with higher education officials who have served as the architects and promoters of such a system.