Student-athletes, like the ones playing in this weekend's Final Four in Indianapolis, are officially designated as amateurs. As per the NCAA's rules, this means that, though most are given a scholarship that covers tuition, room, and board, they can't earn money through things like endorsements, speaking engagements, and the sale of products with their likeness on it. But does it have to be that way?
Allen Sack, a professor at the University of New Haven — and a member of Notre Dame's 1966 national champion football team — has long argued that, no, it shouldn't have to be that way. Sack stresses that he's a major proponent of amateurism, but that the current system — one that allows for renewable one-year scholarships — has strayed far away from the NCAA's original mission.
He terms the current system "counterfeit amateurism," and argues that within such a "highly professional and commercialized model" athletes should be allowed to earn money. Receiving an actual salary isn't realistic — there's no room in athletic-department budgets for such an expense — but he argues that things like endorsement contracts should be an option for especially skilled student-athletes.
"Now that they're no longer amateurs," says Sack, "why should an athlete be capped at room, board, tuition, and fees? That's pay. And why should it be capped when coaches can make millions from it, and anybody who can write a business plan can make millions from it. It's socialism for athletes, and free enterprise for everyone else."
But exactly how realistic is all of this?
According to Sack, it's very realistic. He said the NCAA isn't likely to change course and decree that its student-athletes aren't really amateurs in practice. Instead, he says, it'll happen through the courts, likely through a series of cases that chip away at the current model.
Citing a legal scholar, Sack explains that "older appellate judges in the various courts really can't conceive of even talking about college athletes as being a labor force." He adds that "until the current group of superior court judges, who were in college in the fifties maybe, pass on the gavel to a younger set of attorneys, not much is going to happen." But he adds: "That's going to start happening soon."
Sack believes that the NCAA could be vulnerable in cases regarding worker's compensation and perhaps licensing. He says that the rulings could start to go the way of student-athletes in the next ten years, especially with groups like the National College Players Association fighting for the rights of student-athletes with regards to medical concerns and compensation issues. And though he cautions it's a slow process, he's sure it's underway.
Says Sack: "I'm looking at it as an older person, saying, 30 years ago, I could not imagine a case like the [Ed] O'Bannon case, which is going to court right now, about a professional athlete saying, I deserve a slice of the revenue that's being made by the NCAA using my image.... I never would have dreamed that athletes would have gotten together in the White v. NCAA case and demanded that they get a stipend. I never would have dreamed that Jeremy Bloom would have come along and challenged the NCAA, and said, Dammit, I should be able to make sponsorship money from my other sport, which is skiing in the Olympics, and I need it in order to be able to train. ... I never would have dreamed 30 years ago that athletes would have been challenging these things in the courts."