Time to challenge NCAA’s oppressive amateurism rules

Widespread NCAA investigations into college football programs present an opportunity to examine and challenge the NCAA’s amateurism rules. There is no legitimate basis to accept that participants in the NCAA’s blatantly commercial enterprise are amateurs just because the NCAA says so. The NCAA amateurism rules are a fictional, oppressive harness designed to protect a plantation-like economic model.

With $710 million in projected revenue for 2009-10 and its $10.8 billion, 14-year television contract for NCAA men’s basketball, it is appropriate to challenge the NCAA’s counterintuitive definition of “amateurs.” Other than in the NCAA, in no other for-profit athletic competition are participants with opposable thumbs not paid for their services.

Rather than explain why its amateurism rules are necessary, the NCAA claims that student athletes are given a scholarship in exchange for the revenue they create. If that is the case, the NCAA and its member institutions have breached their contract with student athletes.

The NCAA’s published graduation success rates do not distinguish graduation rates among student athletes participating in the various NCAA sports. According to NCAA figures, the average graduation rate among the BCS conferences in 2008 was 65 percent. However, the University of North Carolina’s College Sport Research Institute concluded that the NCAA’s published graduation rates are misleading and the average graduation rate for schools participating in postseason bowl games was only 54.8 percent, and only 44.6 percent at Division I basketball schools. Whichever number is accurate, the NCAA provides a fraction of the value it promises to provide to student athletes.

The NCAA knows, or should know, that it is making a false promise to as many as 45.2 percent of the student athletes who play college sports for free. Since the real value is in the education and not in the scholarship, actual graduation rates should dictate the amount of revenue the NCAA is permitted to retain from college sports. The NCAA should be permitted to keep only the percentage of revenue that equals the percentage of student athletes who graduate. For example, based on a 54.8 percent graduation rate in 2008, the NCAA should be required to pay 45.2 percent of its revenues into a “Student Athlete Trust.” Proceeds from the trust would assist former student athletes who leave college with limited career opportunities because they did not earn degrees.

The NCAA’s fictional definition of amateurism is as absurd as the comments made and actions taken in support of the NCAA. Nick Saban, the University of Alabama’s football coach, threatened to ban NFL scouts from Alabama’s campus if the NFL did not do more to support the NCAA’s enforcement of its amateurism rules. Though it made for a good sound bite, Saban’s threat is absurd. He would never hand other Southeastern Conference schools such an effective recruiting tool against him. And, with game film, the Senior Bowl, the NFL combine and the proliferation of private workouts, banning NFL scouts from Alabama’s campus would have little impact on the NFL’s ability to evaluate Alabama’s players. The most absurd element of Saban’s threat is that he ignored the fact that, with a published 55 percent graduation rate in 2008 and with its national championship in football in 2009, Alabama is the primary beneficiary of the NCAA’s broken promise to student athletes. Alabama may have been No. 1 in the polls, but it was tied for 50th in graduation rates.

Rather than rallying to support the NCAA’s oppressive economic model, the NFL and the NFL Players Association should challenge it. In 1991, as part of the new NFL Education Program, an NFL study revealed that, while the average career of NFL players was little over three years, the average career of NFL players with college degrees was over six years. Challenging the NCAA to uphold its promise of an education to student athletes generally, and college football players in particular, would be beneficial to the NFL, the NFLPA and the men who play college and professional football.

Any support for the NCAA’s amateurism rule by the NFLPA is particularly disturbing. Current NCAA investigations into college football programs target college football players who are prospective members of the NFLPA. Assisting the NCAA in enforcing oppressive rules that could derail the aspirations of future NFL players is inconsistent with the NFLPA’s fundamental obligation to represent the interests of current and prospective professional football players.

I am reluctant to compare anything recreational to the scourge of slavery, but, in the case of the NCAA’s amateurism rules, the symmetry is too compelling to ignore. Similar to the NCAA’s minimal labor cost economic model, the plantation’s economic model was based on an enslaved labor force that was merely housed and fed. Based on NCAA graduation rates, a college scholarship is nothing more than room and board for 45 percent of student athletes. Slavery was largely preserved by vicious discipline designed to make an example of the slave who broke the rules and anyone who assisted him or her. The threat of the loss of college football eligibility and draconian sanctions on football programs are designed to preserve the NCAA’s oppressive economic model.

To end the viciousness of slavery, our nation rose up and challenged the rules. We must do the same with the NCAA.

David Cornwell ( is president of the law firm DNK Cornwell.

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