What is an amateur anyway?

The NCAA looks like it’s in trouble. It’s facing lawsuits about using players’ likenesses without pay and protests from major sports stars about not being paid for their work. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says theNCAA needs a “new definition of amateurism.”

Traditionally, an amateur is defined as someone who is not paid for whatever it is they’re doing (golf, art, dance, football, whatever). A professional, on the other hand, is paid. But college athletics challenges that traditional definition.

On the one hand, we have swimmers, volleyball players, softball players, and others, who really do seem to meet any definition of amateur athletes. They play in front of few fans, they have (almost) no expectation of playing their sport professionally, and, in my experience, they take their academic studies at college at least as seriously as the rest of the student body.

Then we have the big time sports, mainly football and basketball, but sometimes including baseball and hockey. Some of these athletes play in front of tens of thousands of fans who have paid substantial ticket prices. They play for coaches who are often the highest paid public employees in their states. Many of them hope to turn professional and some of them will and earn millions of dollars. It is hard to see these athletes as amateurs.

If we are going to keep the institute of college athletics in this country (and I’m not saying we should), I would suggest a dividing line based on nothing more than market demand. If the school charges admission for the game, the players need to be paid something beyond their scholarships. And in the conferences with big TV deals, that should be included in the revenue equation. If the players are not generating income then they can be treated as amateurs.

At my university (Go Rams!), I believe the school only charges admission for football and men’s and women’s basketball (and maybe hockey, which is odd, because it’s only a club sport). I’ve been to baseball games and soccer matches and enjoyed them free of charge. Now even in the major sports, despite wishes to the contrary, our teams are not major powerhouses (and our football team is an FCS team, not a bowl-level team). Still, there is demand for the service they provide, and they should be compensated for providing that service. If that means lower salaries for the coaches, then so be it.

The main argument against this (I think), is that it creates a dual-class system for student-athletes in many schools. That’s true, but if you think that doesn’t already exist, you aren’t paying attention. And if schools are on the border, (like our football team), they can always choose to stop charging admission and treat their athletes like the amateurs they claim they are.


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