A case for amateurism in college sports
Members of the Northwestern University football team recently received approval from the National Labor Relations Board to be treated as a labor union — in effect, turning student athletes into university employees.
As college sports flourish, the issues of unionization and student-athlete compensation are fair questions that deserve careful thought and thorough debate considering all the potential consequences of change.
Let’s start with understanding the amateur model. Participating in college sports is rooted in a basic, deeply American concept: work hard, make sacrifices, and get something extremely valuable — an education at an elite American university, something most families save for a lifetime to attain.
Make no mistake, student athletes’ hard work and commitment absolutely benefit schools, which generate revenue and bigger donations while building their brands. Student athletes also get a lot in return: an invaluable education at prestigious institutions; free room and board; professional mentoring; opportunities to travel; a crash course in perseverance, discipline, teamwork, sacrifice and toughness; and a chance to learn life lessons while being taught, coached and guided in a nurturing environment preparing them for the ultimate game of life.
What you see is a consensual, symbiotic relationship between schools and student athletes in which everyone benefits.
Students who want a salary for their athletic prowess, or who simply do not appreciate or want a college education, should be allowed to take a separate path and play professional sports. College sports were never intended to be a minor league feeder system for professional sports and, based on the fact that less than 1 percent of all student athletes ever play their sport professionally, college sports clearly are not that.
The vast majority of student athletes do not wind up on magazine covers. They will, on average, graduate at a higher rate than students who don’t play sports and will go on to a different career often based on their academic field of study.
Discarding this amateurism model will trigger a powerful chain reaction, unintended consequences sure to affect schools’ Olympic and non-revenue-producing sports and roll back Title IX gains, depriving thousands of young people a college education. (Revenue from college sports is our country’s single greatest source of college scholarships next to the federal government).
If the amateur model is blown up, other vexing questions come into play, including the virtual impossibility of determining who gets paid what. Is it by performance? Position? Recruit versus walk-on? How does women’s field hockey compare to football? And where does it stop? Do we start paying kids playing in the televised Little League World Series? What about increased exposure for high school sports?
The fact is, the vast majority of NCAA Division I football and basketball programs operate in the red, subsidized by funds from outside athletics. It would be a travesty to see non-revenue programs, which support the dreams and ambitions of thousands of student athletes, denied funding and shut down.
Undoubtedly, the rapid growth of intercollegiate athletics has put many more demands on student athletes. Reforms must be undertaken to ensure the players’ well-being, including full and appropriate care when injured. On the financial side, changes to cover student athletes’ full cost of attendance are a very good start.
Universities must redouble efforts to make educating students their No. 1 priority, more important than any championship. We should look at ways to offer coaches an incentive toward academic success, not just wins and titles. In managing their growing sports programs, schools must fully commit to elevating their educational mission, preserving the extraordinary value of a college education in an amateur setting.
I believe reforms can and will be made to better support student athletes. Putting them on a salary and into unions should not be among these changes. Treating student athletes as school employees will do far more harm than good … for our young people and for America.
Ben Sutton is president of IMG College, the nation’s leading collegiate marketing agency.
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