The recent headlines about the perversions in college football have appalled observers, but no one could really have been surprised. The University of Miami fiasco is only the latest in a series of contretemps that spread back over a century. While enforced amateurism is really a post-World War II phenomenon, college athletics have been causing trouble on campus for much longer.
Apparently, a booster at the “U” had been paying football players for about a decade while running his illegal Ponzi scheme. (You can’t pay out that kind of dough without a source of funds.) The NCAA will go through its required processes, and Miami will pay big for its transgressions. I hope that President Donna Shalala is not one of the casualties of the inquest, not because of her involvement in sports, which is rather minor, but because of her excellence in academics. On the other hand, some heads will have to roll, especially if the NCAA dusts off its “death penalty,” used only once in history, but certainly a possibility if the allegations are proven.
Football started on campus as a fraternal activity of the upper class young men of the Ivy League and other elite colleges in the Nineteenth Century. My colleague Paul Weiler insists that the first real game of football took place on the Harvard campus in the 1870s when a visiting group of Canadians from Montreal’s McGill played a game against eleven men from Harvard. Football seemed innocent enough a pastime until college clubs began to recruit large strong men to play on their teams — while not worrying too much about whether they were students or not. The game became so rough-and-tumble that the annual death toll from football attracted both public notice and the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt, whose nephew played the game at Harvard and broke a bone in the process. T.R. felt compelled to summon college presidents to the White House, and he ordered them to reform the game to decrease the casualty toll. They did and formed the NCAA in the process. At its creation, the NCAA had nothing to do with amateurism. It was an organization whose goal was purely safety, and it worked.
The fixation on amateurism was a later development after coaches like Bear Bryant attracted muscular support for his teams at Maryland, Kentucky and Alabama. I still have difficulty understanding why it is critical to the college brand to have the players paid only with tuition, room, board and books. Everyone else on campus who provides a service to the institution — including, I should note, the professors — are paid the market rate. If football and basketball players (and maybe hockey players, depending on the institution) were paid a market rate, the scandals would evaporate. Of course, players can demand more, but if they were compensated commensurate with their status as minor league football players, the demand for cash would be reduced. Under the current system of enforced amateurism, many are woefully underpaid.
What then is the downside of letting the free market operate? Would football players focus less on academics? It is difficult to determine how much they now focus on academics. Most have gone to college as pre-professional preparation for a career in major league sports. Of course, not many are able to make that grade. There are other athletes who do pursue academics in college and being paid would not chill their ambition.
Some will argue that eliminating amateurism for college football means the “bad guys win.” In fact, the opposite is true. Eliminating amateurism will diminish the role of those boosters who have polluted the college game. Some will wonder what minor league football is doing on campus in the first place — I have wondered about that myself. Yet, the game has found an important entertainment role connected to academia, and the billion dollar television contracts prove it is a valuable commodity. Openly paying college football players may prove costly to some colleges and universities, and some may decide that they no longer want to participate in the activity. That will not happen with regard to the major sports schools, however.
Perhaps during his second term, President Obama will emulate T.R.’s approach and call the leaders of college sports to the White House for some jawboning about the business of the college game. He is already on record in favor of a college football playoff. The president is a sharp-elbowed basketball player himself with both academic and athletic cred. Maybe it is time for a historic repeat.
Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern
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