Another Nonsensical Defense of Amateurism

NCAA President Mark Emmert's attempts to defend amateurism are completely nonsensical -- especially for anyone who worked while in college. (Getty Images)

NCAA President Mark Emmert's attempts to defend amateurism are completely nonsensical -- especially for anyone who worked while in college. (Getty Images)

Let’s start with a thoroughly unremarkable story. Boring, even. Back when I was a college freshman – a fuzzy, long-ago era where Netscape Mosaic was as wondrous and new as iPhone thumb scanning – I worked at the university bookstore. Peeling labels off unsold textbooks. Packing textbooks into cardboard boxes. Pocketing a paycheck. The last part, I guess, made me a professional – yet at the same time I was paying income taxes as shipping clerk, I also was a student, reading and studying some of those textbooks. Oh, and I also spent a lot of time playing basketball at the rec center, which made me a shipping clerk-cum-student who played sports.

The end. Told you it was a boring story.

Of course, there’s a reason I’m sharing. I think my college experience might blow National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert’s head clear off, like in “Scanners,” leaving nothing behind save a puff of smoke and his immaculate, indefatigable, downright Gingrichian coif. After all, here’s what Emmert had to say in defense of college sports amateurism – now and forever – during a Monday forum at Marquette University:

“One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals. Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”

Rule of thumb: If your best argument for maintaining a morally bankrupt status quo is to retreat into semantic tautology – as opposed to, you know, making moral arguments – then maybe you don’t have an argument in the first place. Honestly, it’s a wonder Emmert didn’t cause the heads of his audience to go Mentos-in-a-cola-bottle, given the sheer inanity of his statement:

1. College sports can’t change because then it would be different. 

Well, yes: By definition, “something different” generally is both the point and outcome of change.

2. College athletes can’t be paid, because if they were, they’d be professionals, and if they were professionals they wouldn’t be “student-athletes.” 

Again, this is correct: If college athletes were allowed to be paid the same way college coaches and administrators and NCAA presidents and the kids who work at the cafeteria are, at least some of them would make money, and since making money is prohibited by the legal fiction that is the “student-athlete,” those athletes would no longer qualify for: (a) being screwed out of workers’ comp if and when they get hurt; (b) a spiffy hyphen.

Still, the real coup de grace of Emmert’s amateurism defense comes in the final sentence: This is about students who play sports. Agreed. College sports are, in fact, about students who play sports. Only what does that have to do with a group of schools colluding to decide who gets to keep the money generated by those sports? Amateurism isn’t just a dubious fiction, it’s a dubious fiction built on two intelligence-insulting premises:

1. College students who play sports are somehow fundamentally different, and therefore deserving of different economic rules, from college students who do not play sports;

2. The education of college students who play sports – indeed, their very status as students – somehow depends on them specifically not being allowed to be paid for playing sports, and/or any notoriety they achieve through said playing.

Do either of these ideas make sense? Do they even hold up to cursory examination, a quick, logical stop-and-frisk? (Note: rhetorical questions). Back to my boring story. I boxed books for the university. I was paid for it. Later on, I won some journalism awards that included cash prizes. Just like the tens of thousands of other college students who work campus jobs each and every year, the school-supplied money in my pocket in exchange for services performed had absolutely no impact on my standing as a student or the quality of my education. If I studied, I passed; if I screwed around, I flunked. The situation was utterly ordinary, entirely non-controversial. On the Spring day I filled out my first 1040-EZ form – and later, when I paid gift taxes on that prize money – I did not receive a two-month label-peeling suspension. Emmert did not break through my wall a la the Kool-Aid Man, flaming stone tablets in hand, castigating me for violating his guiding principles via my heretical conversion into that basest of creatures, the paid employee.

Why should allowing the likes of Allen Iverson – then a classmate of mine – to be paid for his campus job be any different?

Enrolled at a university? You’re a student. Play sports at that university? You’re a student who plays sports. Your employment status is irrelevant, except in the eyes of the NCAA and its member schools. Only there’s nothing principled about their so-called guiding principles. There’s no principle at all. Just empty rhetoric and philosophical sleights-of-hand. Nonsensical claims of but … but … but … education! Grating, repeated references to “the collegiate model,” which is about as real as a Yeti. Go through my archives, and you’ll find a half-dozen concrete reasons why amateurism deserves to join Baby on Board stickers and leech-based medicine in history’s dustbin; on the other side of the argument, Emmert offers airy oral flatulence. Which is hardly surprising. He’s defending a phantom.

Only I know better. Everyone who ever drew a paycheck as a resident assistant or laboratory postdoctoral student knows better. We worked. We studied. Some us of played  sports, albeit mostly badly. We were not playing a “dirty game.” We did not require spiffy hyphens. Nobody’s head exploded.

14 thoughts on “Another Nonsensical Defense of Amateurism

  1. Nice analogy, Patrick, although I wouldnt go so far as to support the pay-for-play solution as proposed just yet since smaller universities might have to keep raising academic costs charged all students to offset monetary losses incurred under such a system, due to the distinctions between Divs. 1-3 in terms of revenues generated for and by the schools as it relates to sports (football drives all college sports revenue, even basketball–except maybe in the old Big East). But, definitely some reasonable compensation is due the NCAA athletes (ala O’Bannon and thanks to you for drumming up support!) regarding the NCAA’s use of their names and/or images in advertising or when marketed in video games, all solely for their profit, not the players who made and make it happen. And, swell tie-in at the end to the class-action concussion settlement argument, and we should say debate, going on elsewhere that you might be aware of! ;)

  2. Presumably, your goal in attending Georgetown University was not to have a career as a clerk in their bookstore, and when you graduated you were happy to leave that job to the next kid. On the other hand, if they were getting paid I’ll bet that most of Allen Iverson’s teammates would have wanted to keep their on-campus job.

    That seems to me to be what Mr. Emmert meant in the statement you quoted. When college athletes become paid employees – as they eventually will – eligibility limits must go, too. 300 D1 schools all declining to employ a talented basketball player with more than three years prior experience is illegal collusion.

    I am not arguing against the change. It’s only fair that these players get paid. But Mr. Emmert’s statement is accurate. College sports – at least the well-paying ones – will no longer be able to maintain the fantasy that these are students playing a sport as an extra-curricular activity. Many will be professionals playing long after graduation. Many more will never even enroll. Most university presidents want to maintain that fantasy.

    • Being British I’m not really aware of the rules around employment rights, regulations etc, but surely this could easily be avoided by saying something along the lines of….. “only full-time students studying at this institution within the first 4/5 years (to allow for redshirts?) of their university education etc. may be employed as athletes” or something more legally correct.
      I’m sure you get the drift.

      The big money athletes would be drafted into the professional ranks at their appropriate age where they would presumably earn more money, get greater exposure and develop their career.
      Meanwhile, those less talented players (who would surely be paid less by their university teams if the market worked correctly) would in most (probably all) cases leave to get better paid jobs in the “real world” at the end of their course.

      Yes there may be some exceptions, but given the new influx of students/players every year I imagine it would not take long for any players who did stick around longer than 4/5 years if permitted (perhaps doing supplementary courses or another degree) to be pushed out of the team on talent alone.

      I also imagine, if University’s could manage these things correctly, that student-athletes would only be given one or two year contracts at a time, at the end of which they would cease to be employees, and other rules would probably prevent them transferring too freely just for more money.

      To be honest, as far as I can see there’s very little reason or legal obstruction to paying students for their athletic work.

  3. Ummm Patrick…I think Mark was trying to say, “I’m getting a really large paycheck here and I’d like that to continue until retirement or death.”
    Nothing more. Nothing less.

  4. Pretty sure that if a college athlete that plays soccer/football/lacrosse/baseball/softball etc., that works in the bookstore and got paid would remain eligible.

    A solution that I like is outside the university entities could pay the student athletes whatever the heck the athletes could get. Manziel would get millions and Matt Davis not so much.

  5. JWJ -Pretty sure that’s incorrect, as the NCAA would maintain that they only got the job because of their athletic status. That’s a no-no. Graduated 15 years ago, played sport at Big10 School (non-revenue generating sport) and was not allowed to get a job.

  6. So, the solution for college athletics is a work-study type of position. This way the job is only available for the tenure it takes one to complete their degree, there are academic requirements to maintain the position, and the salary is a set amount for all involved. (sorry superstars) The downfall to this is that there has to be equal opportunity for all to apply for the job.

  7. I was flat-out paid to be a grad student, and the salary I was paid (meager as it was) was part of the inducement to get me to attend that particular university.

    I fail to see why it should be any different for a college athlete.

  8. while I agree in principle with paying athletes who generate revenue, I grow weary of the tiresome repetition of your argument without actually proposing a solution to the real problems PROOFESSIONAL athletics brings. Please suggest your answers to the following:

    1. You mention you paid taxes on your earnings. Full scholarships with room and board currently are not taxed. How do student athletes pay taxes on the value of their education and stipend. The value of the scholarship, room and board is substantial; how are the kids going to pay?

    2. Professionalism will result in unions, agents, and additional legal proceedings which will drive the cost of sports upwards. The top programs may absorb these, but most universities will not be able financially. This will force multiple tiers based on have and have not. That is not a problem by itself, but are we going to have games with professionals competing against amateurs? That sounds like a huge legal liability problem waiting to be unearthed.

    The football schedules and traditional rivalries will be greatly changed as a result. The big pro programs will have trouble filling schedules without playing each other multiple times in the season. That does not sound bad, but do you think Nick Saban wants increased schedule difficulty? The big coaches are going to fight change that could affect the number of wins
    they achieve because less wins impacts salaries.

    I know capitalism can sort this all out, but the status quo exists because of the stability it provides. We need a more thoughtful analysis of the full problem so we can better decide if we are willing to accept the ramifications.

    Lets not forget the NCAA is a membership institution whose members are the universities whose apple cart you are trying to upset.

    Do you propose change for every student or for only a select few?

    • 1. This is simple – put a line in the tax code that makes athlete salary taxable and leaves room, board, tuition tax free. Done.

      2. Don’t really understand your second idea. Can you please refine your concern/question?

      3. Coaches will fight all changes to current system because they benefit from the surplus revenue not going to the talent.

      3a. Who cares what Nick Saban wants when it comes to people being denied due process and basic economic rights?

  9. While I’m not sure colleges paying athletes is workable on a large scale, what bothers me more is that athletes are not allowed to profit from their talent and skills at all. The USA was founded on the principle of “the pursuit of happiness” which I believe most would agree involves the right to make money. This is a fundamental right. People occasionally have fundamental rights restricted (freedom for prisoners, free assembly for parolees, free speech for scammers, etc…), but this usually involves a history of law breaking. An athlete who accepts a scholarship has one of his fundamental rights restricted because he performed the reprehensible act of wanting to play sports at the next level. He is essentially treated like a criminal. Paying athletes directly opens a can of worms (which sports and players, how much, how much institutional variation, etc) but not allowing a person to endorse products or sell autographs goes way beyond.

  10. Who came up with the idea that playing college sports is equivalent to working a job, whether at university or for a private employer while attending classes there? Should there be tax implications, W-2 forms to fill out, hiring applications with interviews, etc…as ‘real world’ employers have to engage in? I am getting second thoughts about this analogy, such as in is it a false comparison? I much prefer compensation for the use of the student athletes names/video images in advertising and/or for marketing purposes instead of the pay-for-play scheme…but what do I know as am just a child, to coin a phrase!