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
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 NCAA found that the majority of those polled
identify themselves more as athletes than as students. …