College-sports fans have generally become desensitized to the cognitive dissonances of the NCAA’s amateurism policies. The rules, which prevent the payment of cash or other “extra benefits” to student athletes or their families, are necessary to retain the purity of amateur competition, according to the association. Without such restrictions, supporters argue, NCAA sports would devolve into just another minor league of professional sports, with capitalism becoming the athletes’ sole driving source of loyalty to their university. These guidelines usually operate in the public consciousness as a low hum—background noise that doesn’t distract from the compelling sporting events that audiences allow themselves to enjoy. But every now and then, the humming erupts into a roar. And in those moments, viewers are forced to confront the system they have embraced. Odell Beckham Jr. delivered one of those moments last week.
Beckham, the wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, who played for Louisiana State University, was unsurprisingly excited to watch his alma mater challenge Clemson University in the national championship game on January 13. He was so excited, in fact, that he ran onto the field after LSU won and began congratulating the team. With the cameras rolling, Beckham made a big show of pulling money out of a fanny pack and stuffing wads of cash into the LSU players’ hands. Later, when he was in their locker room, Beckham bragged on social media that he would recoup the money he had handed out simply by selling the cleats of one of LSU’s top players.
As performance art, Beckham produced a masterpiece. He was roaring. He was brash. It was shocking. The bold nature of his conduct—intended to mock the NCAA’s amateurism rules on national television—ensured that the association (and, by extension, LSU) would exercise its power to send a message to others contemplating violations of this nature.
Because the NCAA depends on maintaining the status quo, it has gone to great lengths—through litigation, lobbying, and public-relations efforts—to convince the public and its member institutions (i.e., universities) that deviation from the amateurism model would result in the destruction of college sports. LSU dutifully issued a statement last week expressing its intent to cooperate with the NCAA in enforcing these rules, announcing the school’s intent to “rectify the situation.”
The NCAA reaps billions of dollars each year from television contracts for its sporting events, and profits from those and other lucrative partnerships are distributed to member institutions. Those funds provide a significant boost to academic programs across the country, but a good chunk of the money is poured back into the athletic programs. Schools often funnel that money toward huge salaries to attract the best coaching talent and create state-of-the-art facilities to distinguish themselves to recruits. Clemson’s head coach, Dabo Swinney, earned more than $9 million this season—more than most NFL head coaches—while LSU’s head coach, Ed Orgeron, earned nearly $6 million (including a $500,000 bonus for winning the championship). Clemson announced late in 2019 that it would undertake a substantial renovation of its football stadium at a cost of almost $70 million. If teams had to share their NCAA money with players, they likely wouldn’t be able to afford all these luxuries.
Can the players push back against a possible NCAA order to return the Beckham money? In theory, yes. But they would more than likely be deterred. The NCAA has the power to declare the players ineligible for future competition, and a high-level college-football player surely stands to gain more than a wad of cash from Beckham in terms of athletic development, exposure to pro scouts, and reputation building. Even if a single player refused to return the money (such as the Heisman winner Joe Burrow, whose NCAA eligibility has ended), the NCAA may choose to punish the entire LSU program for its “failure to monitor” violations of the amateurism rules. Most likely, the LSU players will be persuaded to forfeit the cash. Thus, with a healthy dose of institutional pressure, they will presumably join the long list of athletes forced to bend under the power of an amateurism model that has become unmoored from common sense, fairness, and consistency.
But with each incident like this one, and the public scrutiny that follows, the association’s contradictions become harder to ignore. Commentators have critiqued the hoarding of wealth by the NCAA and the efforts to keep it away from the athletes who bring in that money. Professional athletes and even TV announcers employed by the very networks that pay so richly to broadcast NCAA games openly mock the credibility of the association’s model.
The unfairness in the LSU case is particularly galling, and it highlights the NCAA’s difficulty in convincing the public that it is enforcing a principled system. Prior to the national championship, Beckham asked for and received the NCAA’s permission to give every LSU player a set of wireless headphones worth hundreds of dollars. If the NCAA thought that gift was a permissible practice under the amateurism rules, how can it credibly take the position that the same guy giving the cash equivalent of those headphones to some of those same players violates amateurism rules? It is certainly hard to see much of a difference in the receipt of “extra benefits,” except for the brazenness of the nationally televised one.
The roar of this incident will soon return to a low hum. But the NCAA has shown signs that it cannot defend the current model for much longer. Responding to court losses and pressure from state legislatures, the association is exploring a plan to permit athletes to profit from their “name, image, and likeness” within limits that remain to be defined. When that sort of relaxation of the amateurism rules does not destroy college sports, the NCAA will hopefully move toward a more equitable model that allows players to receive a bigger share of the wealth they create.
*This article previously implied that an upgrade to LSU’s football facilities was funded by the school’s partnership with the NCAA. The monies came from a private donation.
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