As the NCAA's season-ending basketball tournament approaches, talk of the future of college sports is hot. One of the most controversial questions: Should the college athletes who are the main attraction at this multibillion dollar March Madness tournament be paid? As a longtime supporter of amateur sport, my answer is no. The amateur model embraced by the founding fathers of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1905 remains the best fit for the academic mission of higher education.
However, if the NCAA doesn't change the status quo - which is on a fast course toward building a sports entertainment empire - how could they not pay athletes or at least extend worker's rights?
There would be good reasons for supporting the prohibition against paying college athletes if the NCAA's claim were true that big-time college athletes - like those who will electrify the crowds at this year's Final Four - are merely "amateurs" engaged in sport during their free time. That claim, though, has absolutely no support in recent history, aside from some Division III exceptions.
When I played football for Notre Dame in the 1960s, the NCAA had already compromised its half-century commitment to amateur principles. In 1957, after years of intense internal debate, the NCAA caved under pressure to subsidize athletes, and voted to allow athletic scholarships. It was at this point that commercialized college sports started down the slippery slope toward open professionalism.
At first, NCAA rules allowed these scholarships to be awarded for four years, as I was assured mine would be when I was recruited in the 1960s - regardless of my performance on the athletic field. Unfortunately, since I graduated, scholarships have taken on the trappings of an employment contract.
At the height of student revolts on college campuses in 1967, the association adopted rules that allowed the immediate termination of scholarship aid to athletes who challenge the authority of a coach or withdraw from sports voluntarily. In 1973, four-year scholarships were relegated to the scrap heap. Today, scholarships are awarded on a year-to-year basis. Athletes who have been injured or who turn out to be recruiting mistakes can be fired.
During the past four decades, the NCAA has crafted a payment system that provides a relatively cheap and steady supply of blue- chip athletes for the burgeoning business of collegiate sports and gives coaches the kind of control over them that employers have over employees. It is little wonder that a recent survey of college athletes by the …