By Ken Reed

If you have any interest at all about the issue of whether college athletes should be paid or not, Jon Solomon’s long piece for the Aspen Institute is a must read.

The foundation of the whole debate is the concept of amateurism, it’s history with the NCAA, and the NCAA’s constantly evolving definition of what it is.

As Solomon writes, “Amateurism is whatever the NCAA says amateurism is at any particular moment.”

US District Judge Claudia Wilken expressed the same sentiment in her 2014 ruling in the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust lawsuit case against the NCAA over the commercialized use of players’ names, images and likenesses (NIL):

“The association’s current rules demonstrate that, even today, the NCAA does not necessarily adhere to a single definition of amateurism.”

The NCAA’s definition of what an amateur athlete is varies by sport.

In his piece, Solomon points out that the United States is “the only country in the world to attach a highly-commercialized, multibillion-dollar industry to higher education.” The rest of the world separates elite athletics from education.

It makes no sense that such a huge commercialized entity is part of higher education. It makes even less sense that under American tax laws, this multibillion-dollar sports entity is considered a non-profit endeavor under the universities’ non-profit educational institution umbrella. On top of that, the athletes creating this multibillion dollar enterprise are considered students who just happen to want to play a little football on the side for good ol’ State U. That may be true at most Division III colleges but it certainly isn’t the case at big-time sports departments in the Power Five conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big 12).

Solomon does a great job explaining how we got to this point with college athletics. He also shows how the arc of history is bending toward compensating athletes beyond access to a college education.

Public views are moving toward the players in this debate. According to a 2017 Washington Post and UMASS-Lowell poll, 66 percent of Americans now favor allowing athletes to make money from the use of their NIL.

The first step in treating college athletes more fairly seems to clearly be adopting the current Olympic model, which allows athletes to be compensated for use of their NIL.

Solomon discusses how the Olympics evolved from their once strict amateurism rules:

The Olympics once passionately believed in the evolving definition of amateurism. Paid professional athletes were not allowed. During the 1980s, the move toward professionalism gradually gained full steam sport by sport over several years. The change was aided in part by the suspicion that athletes from some Eastern Bloc nations were already professionals anyway through full-time support and training by their governments.

The public hasn’t stopped watching the Olympics with professionals. Making money through endorsements while being good at a sport doesn’t seem to hurt interest in the Olympics, which once had the most stringent definition of amateurism.

Just like the Olympics, college football and basketball fans will continue to watch their teams in large numbers if athletes are allowed to make money off their NIL.

The tough part about being a progressive is that progress is such a painfully slow process to endure.

Can’t we speed this train up a little?

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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