Amateur sports’ last stand?
04.01.2017By Roger Pielke, Jr.
Next week, the University of Alabama and Clemson University, from South Carolina, will face off in the 3rd college football playoff national championship. More than 30 million people are expected to watch the game on TV. The championship game will be just the latest indication that college sports in the United States are a big deal.
If the NFL is the king of US sports, then college sports are its crown princes. According to Sporting Intelligence, in 2015 the NFL’s 32 professional football teams averaged just over 68,000 fans per game. However, the top 30 college football programs averaged more than 81,000 fans per game. In fact, if those 30 teams were in a league together, it would be the highest attended sports league in the world.
The so-called “big time” college sports are 128 top level programs in football and 352 in men’s basketball, which are overseen by a governing body called the National Collegiate Athletics Association, or NCAA. In 2015, college football held its first national championship playoff, and the corresponding basketball playoff – NCAA March Madness – is among the most popular sporting events of the year.
Popularity is an indicator of success, and with success has come an influx of money into college sports. TV rights in particular bring in billions of dollars every year to the NCAA, its conferences and to individual programs. In 2015, according to USA Today, 56 university athletic programs brought in more than $50 million each, with 24 bringing in more than $100 million.
That influx of money has led to spectacular new facilities and eye-popping salaries for coaches and their staffs. Last month, the defensive coordinator at the University of Colorado, where I teach, was enticed to join the staff at the University of Oregon by a reported $1.15 million annual salary package, more than doubling his previous salary. His salary would be enough to hire 10 assistant professors.
It is no surprise then that the top ten highest paid public employees in the entire US are college coaches. In the US military, it is not generals or admirals who are the highest paid, but the football coaches of Army, Navy and Air Force.
Money has created challenges, not least because the NCAA operates under a philosophy of amateurism for its participating athletes. The NCAA explains: “Amateur competition is a bedrock principle of college athletics and the NCAA. (...) In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.”
With multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, millionaire coaches and players who leave school for lucrative professional contracts, the NCAA model of amateurism is under severe strain. Understanding these strains, and whether they will lead to a break with the past, starts with the history of college sports in the United States.
‘Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Athletics’
College sports evolved with the rise of American universities. Here, at the University of Colorado, the school had a football team before it had its first few graduates in the 1880s. The first intercollegiate sporting event was a crew race between Harvard and Yale in 1852. Foreshadowing the distant future, it was sponsored by a railroad and in pursuit of an advantage over their rivals, Harvard (allegedly) recruited a local coxswain to lead their boat who was not a student, but who could sure row.
Organized games between schools followed in a variety of sports. The first intercollegiate baseball game was Amherst versus Williams in 1859; the first intercollegiate football game was Rutgers versus Princeton in 1869. Sports grew rapidly on and between campuses. In the 1890s, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worried that if sports continued to attract interest in universities, “it will soon be fairly a question whether the letter B.A. stand more for Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Athletics”.
In 1910, the NCAA had sixty-two members; today it has more than 1,200. In the early decades of the 20th century, the NCAA took quick action to standardize the rules of the game of football and other sports. With rules in place, the NCAA organized competitions between schools. By 1941, it oversaw national championships in only two sports. By 2016, this had grown to 90 national championships in 23 sports (across divisions and for men and women) involving more than 54,000 athletes.
The amateurism model
Most of these athletes, in the words of the NCAA, “go pro in something other than sports”. But elite athletes in men’s basketball and football have a significant chance at a career in professional athletics. The NCAA reports that across its top 5 conferences in 2015, 16 percent of eligible basketball players were drafted by the NBA and 57 percent of players wound up playing professionally somewhere in the world the year after they complete their college career.
The professional-like nature of big time college sports has increased pressure for athletes to receive greater compensation – beyond the athletic scholarship and various perks. Issues of player compensation have seen numerous court cases decided, and others are currently underway, but so far the NCAA amateurism model has bent but not broke. Today, the NCAA enforces its amateurism policies in almost 500 pages of rules and regulations, which govern everything from what an athlete can eat to whom he or she can speak with and when.
In the 1970s and 1980s Olympic sports parted ways with the ideal of amateurism, but this idea persists in US college sports. That ideal has less to do with romanticized (and historically inaccurate) views of ancient Greek Olympians than it does with British class distinctions of the nineteenth century. Kenneth Shropshire, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that “the dominant view in the latter half of the nineteenth century [was] that … those who competed for money [were] basically inferior in nature”. A distinction based on amateurism prevented upper-class gentlemen from having to compete with men who labored for a living, lest the workingmen win all the sports competitions. Thus, “it is from these antiquated rules that the modern eligibility rules of the NCAA evolved”.
In early 20th century America there was also a more practical motivation for classifying college sports as amateur – to keep them from competing with the nascent US professional leagues. In 1909, Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous football, basketball, and baseball coach at the University of Chicago, justified the importance of keeping college sports for amateurs on the grounds of protecting the emerging professional leagues from an influx of college players: “The American loves to win and we are willing to pay the price. This creates a wide demand for good baseball players and a certain type of college player sooner or later gets involved.”
Stagg foresaw the mixing of college and professional athletes would expand to other sports. He predicted presciently: “It is my prophecy that in a few years you will find that many of our large cities will be supporting professional football teams composed of ex-college players . . . the passing of [less restrictive amateurism rules] would be an unceasing catastrophe.” Today, college sports serve as pre-professional training centers for professional football and men’s basketball (and to a lesser degree baseball, soccer and hockey).
Employed or exploited, or just kids playing games?
The amateurism debate has centered on issues such as whether college athletes are employees or not, whether they are exploited or not, whether coaches are paid too much, and so on. But the reality is that as long as athletes are involved in a system that generates huge amounts of money, they will hold incredible power. Consider the University of Missouri in 2015, where football players upset over racial tensions on campus announced a boycott of an upcoming game unless the university’s president was fired. The president announced his resignation a few days later.
If college athletes wish to demand greater compensation (or anything else), then they can readily do so. Imagine a team refusing to take the court in the NCAA Final Four game or a college football team striking on the eve of the national championship. There is a lot of latent political power in college sports — how it is deployed is another issue, of course.
The NCAA will not admit it, but they are engaged in a labor negotiation with the athletes who play the games that are so popular across the country. Athletes have already won some concessions in this negotiation, such as securing larger stipends, better food allowances and significant loopholes in NCAA regulations. For instance, last summer at the Rio Olympics several NCAA athletes took home substantial earnings in the form of cash prizes for medals from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Katie Ledecky, the remarkable American swimmer who now swims at Stanford, took home $355,000 in prize money. Texas swimmer Joseph Schooling, from Singapore, received almost $750,000 from the Singaporean government for his Gold Medal. Yet, they are still considered amateurs by the NCAA, revealing the fundamental tension at the heart of American college sports.
College sports in the United States have never been more popular. With popularity has come money, mainly from lucrative television contracts. The influx of money has led to impressive new facilities on campus and eye-popping salaries for administrators and coaches. Seemingly left behind in this success story are the athletes themselves. It is not clear how college sports will evolve in the US, a range of futures are possible. But one thing seems certain, college sports will change.