The End of Amateurism Is Not the End of Competitive College Sports

Predictions of doom for less-wealthy teams miss one thing: The NCAA is already wildly unequal.
The Boise State Broncos take to the field in 2010. (Brian Lossness/Reuters)

The Boise State University football team is doomed. No more Statue of Liberty trick plays. No more postgame player-cheerleader marriage proposals. No more disorienting, slightly psychedelic nationally televised games on the school’s signature blue artificial turf. Just a rapid, underfunded slide into irrelevance—away from spotlight contests like Thursday night’s season kickoff against the University of Mississippi, and toward a dystopian future of unmanageable expenses, fan indifference, and eventual abandonment of the sport altogether.

In the wake of a power grab by the big money football conferences and a recent ruling in the antitrust lawsuit brought against the National Collegiate Athletic Association by former University of California, Los Angeles star Ed O’Bannon, college sports are in a state of flux. And for mid-major programs like Boise State which have made hay against major conference teams, it's more like a state of panic.

Rich schools, the nervous logic goes, are poised to become richer, gorging on gargantuan new television contracts. At the same time, amateurism’s slow death means player prices are about to rise. The end game? Less affluent schools like Boise State effectively will be pushed out of the Division I football and mens’s basketball markets, unable to keep pace with increasing costs, akin to middle-income workers who no longer can afford to live in Silicon Valley. Buh-bye, Butler University basketball.

That’s the fear, anyway. In reality, not much will change.

First, the case for hand-wringing. As Taylor Branch detailed so thoroughly in The Atlantic three years ago, the current college sports economy is rooted in amateurism. It’s basically price-fixing. A cartel of schools—dub it a union, but only if you want to rile up House Republicans—calling itself the NCAA sets the maximum compensation for the likes of University of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston at the value of their athletic scholarships. Never mind if Alabama, Louisiana State University, and the University of Southern California are all competing for the same blue-chip high-school linebacker—thanks to amateurism, said quarterback only can be offered tuition, room and board, and not an unauthorized plate of pasta more.

For bigger and smaller schools alike, amateurism acts as a wage suppressant, allowing them to funnel every television, ticket-sale, and booster-gift dollar that doesn’t go to the on-field talent into ever-expanding facilities and executive salaries. Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $7 million a year. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is paid more than $1.4 million annually. Neither man is bound by the amateur code. (Similarly, the construction workers who will build the University of Kansas’s planned $17.5 million basketball-player dormitory—which figures to be to cinderblock-walled college dorms what the Batcave is to holes in the ground—likely won’t be compensated with rent and textbooks.)

Earlier this month, however, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted for greater power-conference “autonomy,” which basically allows the 65 schools that earn the bulk of the football television money to give athletes larger scholarships and increased medical benefits without breaking away from the association as a whole. Why the shift? Think preemptive strike. A day later, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled in the O’Bannon case that the NCAA no longer can prevent member schools from awarding athletes cash stipends that cover the full cost of attendance, nor prohibit schools from placing a minimum of $5,000 a year into trust funds that can be accessed by football and men’s basketball players following the end of their playing eligibility.

The upshot? By the time Wilken’s ruling goes into effect in 2015-2016, coveted recruits who once could be had for the fixed price of a scholarship will now command the higher (but still fixed, alas) price of a larger scholarship and up to $25,000 in deferred compensation. Which is where the anxiety comes in.

Imagining the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a quarter-century from now, Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff paints a bleak picture:

… the other 286 Division I members soon met with financial ruin. Post-2014, when a mid-major recruiter offered a scholarship covering just tuition, books and room and board, prospects would laugh him out of the living room. And when the big boys bumped up their support every few years—“Just keepin’ up with inflation,” cracked Birmingham pork-rind baron Jocko Broadwad in ’18 —other schools were forced to follow, or at least try to. First with cash. Then with cars and clothes, because those are part of “the full cost of attendance” if a college bro’s to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the efforts of the 27 other leagues to consummate jersey and video-game deals were unavailing. Anyone condemned to play for a mid-major knew that his school had a Billiken’s chance in hell of delivering any trust-fund cash upon graduation.

So the unraveling of the NCAAs continued apace. Such former mid-major powers as Butler, Gonzaga and VCU, with no football revenue or windfall from massive TV contracts, lapsed into mediocrity. Schools like Princeton, Bucknell and Mercer, vanquishers respectively of UCLA, Kansas and Duke during Marches past, made a mess of their tournament cameos. With the upset virtually gone from the NCAAs, CBS drastically cut back its rights payments. A cluster of buildings in downtown Indianapolis have served as Section 8 housing ever since the NCAA moved what was left of its operations to Bangalore …

Wolff’s scenario is a bit extreme, likely exaggerated for effect. Still, it’s not that far off from what actual college sports administrators are saying. In a recent New York Times article, Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh told writer John Branch that “clearly we are moving away from parity. We are certainly moving to a Darwinian model.” Baylor University President Ken Starr—yep, that Ken Starr—informed Congress earlier this year that “if antitrust principles and collective bargaining eliminate pro-competitive limitations on payments and benefits, there may literally be no 'competitive' intercollegiate sports." Literally!

During the O’Bannon trial, both NCAA and university officials insisted that amateurism restraints on athlete compensation were not only necessary for ensuring competitive balance among schools, but also for the very survival of college sports. (In one memorable pre-trial statement submitted to Wilken, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany claimed that his conference would drop down to Division III in a world without amateurism. He later admitted that conference lawyers wrote his statement. Take that for what you will.) Again, the logic is the same: Allow richer schools such as Ole Miss to spend more money on athletes, and poorer schools like Boise State won’t be able to keep pace, or even afford to stay in the game. All of which sounds reasonable, except for one thing.

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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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