The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s website states that it is a “membership-driven organization dedicated to safe-guarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life.” It is a non-profit association that regulates athletes of 1,281 institutions, conferences, and organizations. In 2014 it generated nearly a billion dollars in revenue, 80 to 90 percent of which was from the Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, commonly referred to as “March Madness.” Since the organization is non-profit, every year it distributes whatever revenues it doesn’t use (about 60% on average) back to Division I member institutions through five separate funds as well as to each conference through a grant.
Technically, each of the five funds is designed to serve a specific purpose—for example, the Academic Enhancement Fund “enhances academic-support programs at Division I member institutions. Common uses include tutorial services, equipment, supplies and additional personnel.” The Basketball Fund is distributed among conferences based on how they performed in the tournament over the past six years, so each team has incentive to perform well. However, the NCAA website states that institutions may “use the money as they choose.” So, although the NCAA designed specific purposes for each of these funds, it does not regulate how each university uses the money received from each fund.
Football and basketball teams generate by far the most revenue for universities. It is no secret that the profit margins these programs are able to generate are abnormally high. However, not all Division I sports (besides basketball) produce similar results. For example, at the University of Michigan, nearly every sport except basketball, ice hockey, and lacrosse generated negative profit margins.
Although each member institution receives fairly large payouts from NCAA distributions, universities with large athletic programs generate most of their revenue from ticket sales and contributions. For example, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan received about twice as much from contributions as they did from NCAA distributions. Contributions are a vital factor here, because they are generally required in order to purchase season tickets and can affect a fan’s ability to get priority seating, parking, championship tickets, and access to premium seating. In other words, the more a fan contributes, the better their game day experience.
What’s more important is how universities spend the massive revenues they generate. With the exception of Wisconsin, every school on the list spent more on coach and staff salaries than both building/grounds and scholarships. In fact, every school besides Ohio State spent by far the least on scholarships. Not only did these schools pay coaches and staff three and a half times more than the total value of scholarships, they also spent on average more than twice as much on new buildings and maintenance of old buildings.
The NCAA has long adhered to the principle of “amateurism” as its rationale for not compensating student athletes. It asserts that “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.” It claims that college athletes are students first and athletes second, and that compensating the athletes from “obtaining a quality educational experience.”
The concept of amateurism originated in 18th-century England. The original model was created by a British upper class that envisioned a true sportsman as one who participated in a sport purely for a love of it rather than for reward or material gain. It was adopted by those who had the social position to pursue athletic excellence—sports were not an activity for the working class. In fact, common wage labor was a basis for exclusion from sporting contests, and professional coaching was looked down upon.
Although the principle of amateurism had long been widely accepted, there has been much debate in recent years about its validity and whether or not it is truly in the best interest of the students and not the schools they attend. In July 2009, Edward O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed a lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of its Division I football and basketball players, alleging that violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act and of actions that deprived him of his right of publicity. He filed the suit after seeing an Electronic Arts feature a UCLA player in his exact likeness without his permission. 19 other former college athletes joined the suit as plaintiffs, who alleged that the NCAA colluded with its member colleges and conference to enter a price-fixing agreement. Five years later on August 8, 2014, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA’s policies banning athletes from profiting from their own names, image and likeness “unreasonably restrain trade.” The NCAA responded by arguing that precompetitive benefits of prohibiting college athletes from sharing in the multibillion-dollar collegiate sports industry justified its policies. The Court disagreed, and Wilken’s ruling lifted the restriction that barred Division I schools from sharing revenue and permitted schools to place as much as $5,000 into a trust each year of eligibility per athlete. It also ordered that schools be allowed to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships to athletes, covering cost-of-living expenses that were not currently part of NCAA scholarships.
In March 2014, the National Labor Relations Board granted football players at Northwestern the right to be considered legal employees and form labor union. Although it only applies to players at Northwestern, it awards them the power to negotiate for a share of their successes. Neither the O’Bannon vs. NCAA nor the Northwestern incident ended amateurism—they simply modified its definition—but both events mark a significant step towards a revision of the current way of thinking.
In my opinion, the issue does not lie in the definition and defense of amateurism—it lies in the current pathway basketball and football players must follow in order to become professionals. Football players are not eligible for the NFL draft until they have been out of high school for at least three years. The rules do not state that the player must attend college, but how else is the player supposed to showcase his skills and be considered for the draft? The NBA has a similar rule, only granting draft eligibility to students who graduated high school four years earlier or have played under a contract outside the NBA (i.e. on an international team). So, players do not have to go to college, but they have to wait three or more years or leave the country to play in order to be eligible for a draft. Neither the NFL nor the NBA have minor leagues, so the most realistic way for a player to showcase his skills and actually be considered by professional teams is to attend a college and become a “student”—herein lies my issue with amateurism.
The principle of amateurism assumes that the player has chosen the pathway of education, which takes precedence over his athletic career. However, not all athletes wish to pursue an education—they are pressured into doing so because they have no better way to advance their athletic career. What the NCAA and universities do is basically force athletes into agreeing to prioritize being students, and then hold that agreement against them. If the player refuses the agreement, what else is he to do? The argument that players can sign contracts with international teams is unrealistic because there would not be enough spots if every player decided to do so. The original Division I manual crafted by the NCAA in 1906 states that “student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation.” An avocation is a hobby or minor occupation. No one can rationally argue that serious college athletes consider their sports to be avocations. The original model of amateurism from the 18th century should not be applied to present day athletes pursuing sports as professions.
The Major League Baseball organization (MLB) has a minor league that offers players development opportunities in lieu of attending college. Players that want to attend college have the right to do so and therefore submit to the regulations of the NCAA. Why is there no option for football and basketball players? Universities have basically taken on the role of minor leagues at much lower costs due to tax breaks (since the NCAA is technically a non-profit organization) and restricted labor costs. A simple solution to the issue of amateurism would be for the NFL and NBA to institute minor leagues similar to that of professional baseball. In fact, if universities truly believe preserving these teams is so important, they could serve as hosts for the minor leagues, as long as they do not force the players to become students and incur the true costs of signing the athletes. It is clear that strong athletic programs create value for universities by uniting students, alumni, faculty, staff, and local communities—but this value should not come at the expense of the athletes. The institution of minor leagues for football and basketball would completely solve the amateurism debate. Athletes who truly wish to prioritize education would have the option to do so and would rightfully be subject to the NCAA’s rules.
Robert Nozick would argue that the NCAA and the leagues use their power to shape the labor market to warp a just initial distribution of labor opportunities. This results in the wealth that the athletes generate going to the NCAA and the universities. Thus, minor leagues for the NFL and NBA would be a ramification of injustice in Nozick’s view.
As it is, the political sphere of the NCAA dominates the economic sphere of Division I football and basketball. By binding the world of opportunity to the world of academia, the NCAA and its member organizations reap the economic benefits of price-fixing for lower costs. Instead of the current system, there should be minor leagues that operate completely separately from the NCAA, which would only have the power to regulate athletes who choose the path of prioritized education—this would lead to complex equality, which would mean no sphere could dominate the other.
One could apply a veil of ignorance to this situation by imagine this labor relationship in any other context. In what other industry are the members of an organization who generate the revenue for that organization not compensated? These individuals are making a unique contribution to the community and are essentially being drawn into an arrangement where that contribution is not justly rewarded. However, the veil of ignorance is rendered useless by the concept of amateurism, which rests on the idea of education. However, if players could pursue their careers without obtaining an education (i.e. through minor leagues), the veil could be applied.
Some may argue that if football and basketball have minor leagues, all sports should. However, this is simply not the case, as our society values these two sports much more than the others, which means it has markets that could support minor leagues for them. The NCAA’s mission is to “protect the well-being of student athletes.” The most important phrase in this sentence is “student athletes.” It justifies any action the NCAA takes as “in the best interest of the student’s education.” What is missing from the system is an organization dedicated to protecting the best interest of the athlete that is pursuing a career in professional football or basketball.
Wheeler, S. “Rethinking Amateurism and the NCAA.” Stanford, California: Stanford Law School, c1989.
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