At its heart, the NCAA is a voluntary enterprise. Schools voluntary decide to join it and select their level of competition and regulation. Coaches and administrators choose to be employed by NCAA institutions, with all the restrictions and benefits that designation entails. Athletes choose to become student-athletes. When an athlete decides to become a student-athlete, they enter into a bargain.
That bargain provides athletes with assistance in paying for a college education, training and development in the sport of their choosing, and in some sports the exposure that can be vital in beginning a career as a professional athlete. In return, the student-athlete agrees to forego profiting off his or her athletic ability while they are a student-athlete and agrees to reach certain academic benchmarks. This is the deal offered to student-athletes.
There are plenty of potential criticisms of this bargain. You may not believe enough financial assistance is guaranteed. You may not believe the training and development is sufficient. And you may not feel like student-athletes have enough information to enter into this bargain or leave it at the proper time.
The fact is that for two sports, this bargain is only technically a bargain. College athletics is neither slavery nor indentured servitude. All student-athletes is free to walk away at any time if they feel exploited or are offered a better deal. But when an option is your only option, what is technically a voluntary bargain becomes one you are compelled to accept.
In some sports, baseball for instance, the bargain is a truly voluntary one. A prospective student-athlete is free under NCAA and MLB rules to be drafted and negotiate a contract (yes, we can argue about the agent/advisor distinction). At some point, the prospect has a final offer with a deadline from a professional team and a scholarship offer from an NCAA institution. He then can decide which one is in his best interest to accept. Similar scenarios play out in hockey and soccer every year.
But in football and basketball, those alternatives do not exist. A senior in high school has no clear alternative to agreeing to at least one or three years of NCAA amateurism. As a result, those years of restrictions on earnings and required coursework are essentially forced upon someone who would not have agreed to it if an alternative existed.
The onus then in put on the NCAA to improve the deal it offers to student-athletes. And not just at the margins in terms of multi-year scholarships or better training. Rather, the NCAA membership is pressured to change the fundamentals of the agreement by eliminating the restrictions on profiting from one’s athletic ability and/or reducing or eliminating the academic requirements.
But it was not the NCAA who made the current deal offered to student-athletes the only one available. It was the NFL and NBA who took advantage of the fact that the NCAA operates the only 18-23 year old developmental league at zero cost to the professional league it feeds athletes into in the world. If Division I athletics were not played at the level they are, it would be both unconscionable and unprofitable to both bar high schoolers from entering the professional ranks and refuse to operate a minor league focused on development.
When Brigham Young University suspended Brandon Davies for a violation of the university’s Honor Code, we were reassured that every student at BYU knows what they are signing up for. To the extent that we as NCAA members have failed to make it clear to prospective student-athletes what they are signing up for, then we can justly be criticized.
Because NCAA amateurism has an educational, if not a moral component. It preaches delayed gratification. It encourages student-athletes to use fleeting athletic talent to secure a college education, something with a much greater shelf life. And it exposes student-athletes to a range of experiences and opinions they are unlikely to encounter if they jump straight to the professional ranks.
But no one should be forced into those experiences. If a student-athlete does not want to be bound by the BYU Honor Code, there are 345 other Division I institutions that have different rules. Prospective student-athletes don’t need 345 different options when deciding how to continue their athletic career. They just need at least two. The NCAA is offering one. It’s time that the NFL and NBA offer a second.
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.