The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism

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.

"I just think pros should not be in the Olympics," he said. "For me, it takes the fun out it."

Harris is in the minority. In the 1970s, the Olympics began loosening its amateur requirements; by the mid-1990s, professional athletes in every sport save boxing were free to compete. The result? Stronger, more fan-friendly Games. Consider the numbers. Despite shrinking, fragmenting television audiences, the Olympicscontinue to produce boffo ratings. According to the IOC, the mostly amateur 1980 Lake Placid Games earned $30 million in sponsorship revenue; by contrast, the wholly professional 2002 Salt Lake Games cleared $840 million. And while the IOC had just $200,000 in cash reserves in 1980, it now oversees a multibillion dollar enterprise.

Dead in eight years? When the Dream Teamers—the epitome of Olympic professionalization—took the court in Barcelona two decades ago, they were greeted as rock stars. The world did not lament the absence of America's traditional unpaid collegiate all-star squad; it happily welcomed its new basketball overlords. After all, fans don't tune in to watch salaries. They tune in to watch elite athletes do jaw-dropping things. Today, international basketball has never been better. Or more popular.

"The biggest lesson of the Olympics is that you shouldn't listen when somebody says we wouldn't compensate the talent," said Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist with extensive sports experience. "People's love of competition trumps anybody's love of athlete poverty. There's clearly something about athletes playing for their countries and the gathering of nations that has huge appeal. But it was romantic—and irrational—to think that the market demand for that had anything to do with with what the athletes earn before or during the Olympics."

The college sports market is no different. Fans want high-level play. They enjoy rooting for particular schools. The appeal is tribal. When Arizona faces Stanford, no one cares if the one team's scholarships are worth more, or if the other squad's star quarterback is getting a cash handshake from an overzealous booster. Eliminate amateurism tomorrow, and big-time college football and basketball fans won't desert en masse; if anything, they might like NCAA sports more, given that hypocrisy and corruption will no longer be core components of the exercise.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

Just In