The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism

"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.

"The concern that college athletes need to be connected to the college mission through amateurism is a red herring," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor in Drexel University's Department of Sport Management and co-author of the book College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth."If that's the case, why don't we have this incredible uprising when school's aren't graduating 100 percent of their players? Nobody boycotts a stadium because the starting line didn't graduate. My sense is that the college product is connected to locale. Alums will still care about their team regardless of they are amateur or professional.

"It's pretty interesting to ask why the NCAA continues to hold onto this concept of amateurism despite the fact that the Olympics parted ways with it. All this handwringing about what would happen if we paid college athletes, the destruction of the system—similar fears were raised about women's entry into college sports, and in retrospect, they weren't borne out."

A half-century ago, former British runner and Member of Parliament Chris Chataway called for the end of Olympic amateurism, arguing that "to drop the pretense would do away with a lot of the subterfuge and a constant source of bickering between the competing nations." Finally, belatedly, the Games saw the wisdom in his words. Why can't college sports do the same? Last fall, I attended a Washington, D.C. meeting in which Emmert promised piecemeal, incremental NCAA reform —but no revolution. Afterward, I asked former University of Maryland basketball star Len Elmore if schools would be better off emulating the Olympics. Elmore furrowed his brow. He was eloquent. He was serious. He made the same old argument for an outdated system, a retreat into semantics and sentiment: if we pay amateur athletes, he said, they'll be professionals. And then they won't be amateurs. Exactly right.

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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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