The college athletic system is broken
Laws like the California measure are critical for vulnerable student athletes and should be paired with action by the NCAA to introduce just compensation for players. The NCAA spins participation in college athletics as an honor and therefore crafts an image of glorified amateurism around student athletes. However, college sports have become a professional venture in all but the way in which athletes are viewed. While profits are pursued relentlessly by the NCAA and college athletic departments, students are squeezed as a result of being held to a different set of standards.
Take, for example, the NCAA’s punitive measures against schools that commit ethics violations, the most popular being revoking athletic scholarships. If the NCAA were still concerned with student athletes’ best interests, the organization would mandate that offending institutions’ athletic departments allocate the scholarship to another sport. That way, a favorite recruiting tool of the sanctioned team is curbed, and a scholarship is preserved to give another deserving athlete a chance at a college degree. The NCAA’s instinct to eliminate athletic scholarships is a symptom of a broader malpractice: The players have become secondary means to a lucrative end.
In order to understand the consequences of this shift in perspective, it is instructive to examine the structure of the universities in question. Last spring the University of Florida, facing budget cuts, gutted its computer science program by $1.4 million. Anger arose, however, when the annual increase in the athletic budget exceeded the savings from the computer science cuts. It is clear priorities were askew, but anger at the university was largely misplaced due to a lack of understanding about the relationship between the school and its own athletic department.
While Florida as an institution of higher learning faces drastically depleted resources, the athletic department is buoyed by donations from boosters and even manages to turn a substantial profit. It is true that revenue sharing with the university exists, but only to a limited degree. Florida’s contrast as both a starving academic entity and an athletic non-profit juggernaut is hardly unique among top sports schools and illustrates the negative impacts of the current system on all students, not just athletes.
When profitability is prioritized, athletic departments are inevitably held to different standards from the academic institutions which they represent. All the while, students are demanded to generate massive revenues, while being locked into an amateur status not applied to anyone else in the industry – and it is clearly, above all, an industry. That unique status serves both to exempt students from sharing in the profits they create and to subject them to punishments that do not account for the services they provide. The NCAA associates privilege and playing college sports with a certain degree of cynicism. To an extent, of course, there is great prestige that comes with Division I athletics, but the NCAA only plays up this idea to preserve amateurism in what otherwise must be recognized as a professional field.
The ideal of amateurism and the reality of profitability make for an unsustainable duality. These converging visions represent different understandings of the proper culture of college sports: whether academic purity or commercialized industry should be prioritized. For too long, large universities and the NCAA have paid lip service to the former while restlessly pursuing the latter; all the while the very players who generate the lucrative profits have been ignored and mistreated. The time has passed for a debate about whether amateurism ought to be preserved; now that ideal exists only in proclamation and not in practice. Instead, we should finally recognize our student athletes for the services we demand they provide.
David Will is a sociology major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.