The concept of amateurism has been around since college football’s beginning, in the late 1800s, but college football has never had the type of purity that the term implies. In the sport’s early decades, as the historian Taylor Branch has detailed in The Atlantic, players were usually hired to play and barely, if at all, disguised as regular college students. They frequently died of injuries sustained during games. In the early 1900s, the NCAA was founded to assure fans that the game was committed to cleaning itself up, but the organization lacked meaningful power until the 1950s. During that era, it took control of college football by consolidating the sport’s TV rights and inventing the concept of the “student-athlete”—the idealistic notion that players were simply exceptional young adults, playing for the love of the game—which helped schools defeat liability claims from players who had been catastrophically injured or killed while playing.
The NCAA’s role in modern football is primarily to regulate what athletes can do and receive while enrolled in school. It sets limits on the frequency and conditions of practice, and restricts “improper benefits,” including paychecks and cash bonuses. The NCAA asserts that this oversight is necessary because amateurism is what makes college football special. Paying players, the NCAA’s defenders argue, would open a Pandora’s box of corruption and destroy the game’s parity, consolidating success at a few well-funded programs. It’s difficult to maintain any pretense of parity, though, when the University of Alabama has won four out of the sport’s past 10 national championships, and Clemson University, its frequent opponent in playoff games, has won two of the others. (An NCAA spokesperson referred me to its protocols for playing in the pandemic, but did not comment further on other topics.)
Usually, the economic component of the NCAA’s amateurism enforcement is the subject of the widest public scrutiny. Ensuring that athletes aren’t compensated often means punishing players for things such as accepting gifts or signing autographs sold by memorabilia dealers. These rules get absurdly granular: For years, schools could give athletes bagels, but not free cream cheese for their bagels. Once, three players at the University of Oklahoma were required to donate several dollars each to charity for eating too much pasta. Over time, that level of micromanagement has become more and more out of step with fans’ attitudes toward players. Recent polls have shown that people largely have come around to the idea that, at the very least, players have a right to profit from their name and likeness.
According to Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a lecturer at Duke University whose work focuses on sports, race, and labor relations, these economic concerns sometimes overshadow a more dire problem of amateurism, however. “The most serious ramifications for college players relate to health and safety, a situation only exacerbated during the pandemic,” he wrote via email. “They are not governed by occupational health and safety provisions, nor do they have employer-provided health insurance.”