Both Jay Bilas in his call for the NCAA to reform itself (subscription req’d) and John Gasaway in his article on amateurism in the NCAA (purchase req’d) argue for the same thing. Ignore all the fluff in the two articles. At the core, the two pieces argue the same three points.
- The NCAA’s view of amateurism is based on a historical ideal with elitist roots.
- The place in the world for the NCAA’s version of amateurism has been under attack if not gone from the moment the NCAA was formed.
- Allowing student-athletes to receive compensation from third parties and have agreements with agents would not further damage the NCAA’s amateur principles.
The first point is at the very least useful for the NCAA and its member institutions to keep in mind. However, the fact that the world that existed when the principle was created was much different from the world that exists now is not sufficient reason to throw away the principle. I disagree with Gasaway’s characterization of amateurism as a simple state of being though. To me the NCAA promoting their version of amateurism is no different than the Salvation Army promoting their version of generosity. The issue is whether you agree with the mission of the organization promoting the virtue.
The second point in both article ignores an important caveat. It’s legitimate to question whether the NCAA’s view of amateurism holds water … in a world where the NCAA is the de facto final developmental step for two major professional sports leagues. Or worse, it assumes that the NCAA desires or created that condition. I would agree however that some of the NCAA rules, much like the critics of those same rules, don’t seem to take into account that very important fact.
I have a great deal of disagreement with the third point, the solution that Bilas and Gasaway both propose. Part of that comes from the fact that the argument assumes that the NCAA should not be an idealistic organization. In fact, it would be the height of hypocrisy if the NCAA, a non-profit entity, was not striving for some version of a better tomorrow, whether you agree with it or not.
This is where Bilas’s version of the argument runs off the rails. If the NCAA’s principles are “intellectually dishonest” and “fairy tales,” then why does Bilas present what purports to be a passionate defense of the organization? If one of the chief means of promoting and enforcing those principles is “profoundly immoral,” why does the Association deserve to be rescued from the brink? And how is the NCAA saved at all by eliminating or drastically changing one of its core principles?
If a critic of the NCAA believes the organization has outlived its usefulness, then they should argue for the abolishment of the NCAA. Because while arguing for reform of this degree sounds like preservation, if the NCAA adopted such a reform, it wouldn’t be the NCAA anymore. Sure, the letterhead might say “National Collegiate Athletic Association,” but the substance of that organization would be something totally different.
The two core principles of the NCAA, amateurism and education, also cannot be divorced from each other. Amateurism helps allow for education and education is the reward offered for choosing amateurism. That’s where Gasaway’s idea of “doubling down” on academics, namely requiring increased academic standards in exchange for deregulating agent agreement and benefits misses the mark.
It’s not that allowing agents and outside compensation just ruins the amateurism ideal. Whether student-athletes are truly amateurs still is a point on which reasonable people can differ. The same goes for a debate about the degree to which welcoming third parties into the structure of the NCAA would further damage efforts to promote the amateur ideal.
It’s that allowing, even legitimizing third parties who seek to make a quick buck by getting an athlete to leave school early, the ability of the NCAA and its member institutions to promote a college education is also harmed. And while paternalistic arguments are tougher to defend, its important to note that many times the student-athlete leaving based on the advice of those people is to their detriment.
The NCAA has a principle regarding education, just like it has a principle regarding amateurism:
Bylaw 2.2.1 – Overall Educational Experience.
It is the responsibility of each member institution to establish and maintain an environment in which a student-athlete’s activities are conducted as an integral part of the student-athlete’s educational experience. (Adopted: 1/10/95)
Over all those principles hangs the general principle of the Association:
Bylaw 2.01 – General Principle
Legislation enacted by the Association governing the conduct of intercollegiate athletics shall be designed to advance one or more basic principles, including the following, to which the members are committed. In some instances, a delicate balance of these principles is necessary to help achieve the objectives of the Association.
Just as you can’t separate amateurism from education, you can’t separate education from amateurism. Total deregulation of agents and outside compensation is not a tweak, it is a major philosophical change. And even if that deregulation promoted amateurism, it is anything but delicate. But just as Bilas and Gasaway pointed out that the NCAA’s vision of amateurism has its roots in the early 20th century, so too does the NCAA’s vision of education.
Back in that time, a postsecondary education was for the learned professions and the sciences. Undergraduate education was still firmly rooted in the liberal arts, and was a very elitist institution. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that college shifted toward what it is today, where it’s a virtual requirement for most white-collar professions and there is a struggle to provide access to college for as many people as possible.
The rules could be updated to address this change by expressly allowing, even promoting two majors: sport performance and sport education (i.e. coaching).
Such a move would reinforce the idea that college should prepare you for a professional career. It would acknowledge the idea that professional athletics is a viable career, even if only for a minuscule portion of the student-athlete population. The relatively small number of graduates making a living as full-time artists, musicians, or philosophers has not killed off those majors.
It would also promote the idea that the study of athletic performance is a meaningful academic endeavor, just as the study of musical or artistic performance is. That would open an avenue for increased study of issues like concussions and overtraining. And it would provide a new source of professionally trained coaches, particularly needed as specialization, injuries, and money continue to grow at the youth level.
Courses in a sport performance major could include the type of education that elite athletes have needed, such as courses on personal investing and accounting, public relations, and media training. Schools that already have or choose to develop a sports management program could teach student-athletes the business of the professional leagues they are entering. Not to mention some sort of credit for practicing and playing the student-athlete’s sport. The coaching major would be similar, but with more education mixed in.
There would be a host of details to be worked out, from how classes fit into practice limits and whether funneling of students to such majors needs to be watched to how coaches fit into the faculty structure of a university and who accredits these programs. It’s a move for the small minority of student-athletes who will be going pro in sports, in some fashion. But it even as it clearly stakes out territory for the NCAA and its member institutions in preparing students for professional athletics, it also ties the athletic department closer to the university and potentially increases faculty control of athletic department spending and policies.
Preparing student-athletes to make a living playing their sport or teaching it to others reinforces the principle of education to help train athletes for a potential professional career or to help them use their athletic skill in a related field. It assists amateurism by striking a better bargain for athletes and providing a place for the individualized instruction necessary to help athletes make good decisions about their professional careers. And it does a better job striking that delicate balance than simply throwing the doors open to anyone who wants in.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.