The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism

"When you label everything a violation, everything is going to be a violation," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and founder of the National College Players Association, a campus athlete advocacy group. "It's going to taint the sport, demonize players that have simply broken oppressive rules that works against their best interests."

Way back when, the amateur Olympics faced a similar set of issues: a nonsensical system; inconsistent enforcement; a losing game of free market whack-a-mole with athletes on the (utterly reasonable) take; growing public distrust and disgust. Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals in the 1912 Olympics pentathlon and decathlon—won while wearing a borrowed pair of shoes—because he previously had played minor league baseball for $2 a day. By the 1960s, however, Olympic athletes were officially allowed to receive "broken time" payments, compensation for the time they missed from work while competing in sports. According to Mallon, such payments were often wink-wink, while under-the-table payments to track and field stars were commonplace. "Certainly by the late 1950s, a lot of American athletes were finding ways around amateurism," he said. "And in the Eastern Bloc, the athletes were state-sponsored."

In the middle of the last century, French sportswriter and former L'Equipe editor Gaston Meyer summed up his objections to amateurism: "Do not forbid what you can't prevent." And to think: he wasn't even talking about college athletes interacting with sports agents.

Salaries aren't mandatory

Supporters of college sports amateurism often claim that scrapping the system would be like giving all Americans equal access to health care: a nice idea, but a legal and fiscal impossibility. After all, letting student-athletes earn money means paying them a market wage. Which in turn means axing currently subsidized campus sports like tennis and volleyball; fending off inevitable Title IX lawsuits; dealing with a probable athlete union; possibly saying goodbye to the NCAA's all-important federal tax-exempt status.

Only here's the thing: Salaries aren't mandatory.

The Olympics doesn't pay participants. It simply allows them to get paid. There's a difference. A difference college sports should welcome with open arms. Don't make campus athletes university employees. But do let them be like Phelps, appearing in commercials and on the cover of video games, profiting off their fame and image like everyone else in America. Including their coaches. Doing so won't cost the current college sports industrial complex a penny of the billions it receives for men's football and basketball broadcast rights; if anything, it will help grow and share the wealth without having to share too much of said wealth. Bruce Jenner's iconic paid appearance on a Wheaties box was good for the former decathlete and good for his sport; if Brundage's ghost shed a single Iron Eyes Cody tear at the rank commercialism of it all, well, boo-hoo.

"Players already endorse products," Huma said. "They already serve as billboards for the shoe companies. They're used in video games. They're used in lots of ways. Schools have fundraisers where they sign autographs and gear on behalf of the school. So it's hypocritical to claim some moral stance that that the players shouldn't receive money for this."

Money is not a learning disability

When pressed to defend the current system, NCAA president Mark Emmert and other college sports power brokers typically fall back on a shopworn argument: schools exist to educate students, and students making money by playing sports would undercut said mission.

Left unsaid: how, exactly?

Salaried professors don't undermine education. Nor do students working their way through school. Yet somehow, athletes are different and special, prone to mental and moral ruin upon unrestricted exposure to dollar bills. Perhaps because they run really, really fast. Nobody had a problem with Natalie Portman filming Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones while attending Harvard—yet when former Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom accepted endorsement money for his Olympic-level side career in freestyle skiing, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. This is mushy thinking, paternalistic and condescending, an echo of the laughably outdated arguments for preserving Olympic amateurism once presented in Sports Illustrated:

most athletes and sports officials oppose [eliminating Olympic amateurism]. It would, they maintain, either discourage youth altogether from taking up sports or encourage those with talent to devote their entire lives to sports until they end up at 30 or 35 as jobless has-beens. Unless they simultaneously practice a trade or profession, champion athletes, according to these men, tend to become like the champions of the original Olympics whom Euripides described as "slaves of their bellies" or, as Philostratus put it, "sorry slobs and spineless people."

Sorry slobs? Spineless people? Please. Andre Agassi devoted much of his life to professional tennis. He made a bundle. Never went to college. He won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He's now a noted philanthropist, the founder of a Las Vegas college prep academy for disadvantaged youth. Meanwhile, Joe Paterno was a bronzed paragon of the college sports status quo, a one-time classics scholar who presumably studied Euripides. He ended up being, well, Joe Paterno.

"Big time college sports, according to the NCAA, must maintain a clear line between collegiate and professional sports because there's an educational component," Sack said. "That's a bullshit argument."

Fact: a student-athlete with money in his or her pocket can still be a successful student. A good person, too. Just like anyone else.

Dropping amateurism won't hurt the product

His childhood hero was American decathlete Bob Mathias.His favorite Olympic moment was 1980's "Miracle on Ice." Stephen Harris loves the Games. But his ardor is diminishing. An associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History, Harris preferred the amateur Olympics, liked the idea of an international competition rooted in peace, friendship and sport for its own sake.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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