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To fix the NCAA, Restore Amateurism to College Sports

In all formal channels of society, it seems that the glorification of athletes, celebrities, and musicians is on the rise. Media nearly across the board have sympathized with Players Unions in disputes with team ownership at all levels of professional sports, regardless of the issue. They’ve pushed for college athletes to receive professional salaries. And they pedal celebrity opinions on subjects unrelated to their expertise as hard-hitting news in lieu of reporting on meaningful contributions by experts and innovators to fields like science, technology, engineering, or math. In many cases, the only uncertainty in such stories is whether the headlines will emphasize celebrity worship or moral shaming of the masses to a greater degree.

Resulting is increasing animosity toward these glorified professions among many in the general public, who rightly see inconsistency in the media pedaling sob stories on behalf of millionaire athletes at the same time that few sympathies are reserved for average, tax-paying American citizen trying to feed their families, pay their bills, and hold together the strands of output that make our society possible. We have reported previously on the absurdity in sports of media advocating so relentlessly on behalf of greater salaries for athletes at the same time that ticket prices for average fans have more than doubled over the last 30 years, pricing out families from attending games at an alarming rate. A big reason those ticket prices has risen is that the pay for the athletes themselves has more than quadrupled over that same time period. And yet the media often tell the fans the moral thing to do is to side with the athletes in their quest for more millions.

The rise in salaries, obsession, and media sympathy for celebrity athletes is tearing at the fabric of a society whose long-term success depends more on promoting robust and equitable interest among young people in STEM fields and other disciplines than it does on growing interest among young people in playing professional sports. A small but vital chorus laments the overwhelming passion among many youth who aspire to careers in sports or music while interest in other fields of more academically rigorous contribution wanes. The media bears a lot of blame in creating this dysfunction.

A key component of reversing this trend is restoring amateurism to amateur sports. But this is not direction the trend line is moving.

For decades college sports has escalated in the raft of benefits it provides college athletes that it does not provide typical students: they include reduced standards for admissions to elite universities that are wildly inconsistent with the increasingly difficult admission standards for typical students. The result is that more athletes are admitted with lower credentials while more qualified applicants seeking to contribute on the back of their academic merit are turned away.

The benefits also include full-ride university scholarships that reward sports performance in lieu of scholarships that could go to other students for their academic contributions. The benefits include state-of-the-art training and nutrition programs and access to medical services not accessible to other students. They include access to tutors and academic resources not available to other students. And they include a wide array of informal benefits, including, in some cases, under-the-table payments from alums.

In many cases athletes are allowed to get away with cheating, misdeeds, crime, sexual harassment, and all kinds of other damaging activities at a far greater rate than other students. Students who would be expelled if they were not athletes are often given “slap on the wrist” punishments if they are good at sports. This damages efforts to create a safer environment for students overall.

College athletes also are afforded a level of prestige and media exposure that other students do not get, and in many cases are directly queued up for multi-million-dollar careers the second they leave the campus, even if they do not graduate. Even if these athletes do not excel in sports, in the case of Ohio State, they are directly introduced to leading representatives of Fortune 500 companies through a “real life Wednesdays” program that is only accessible to football players. The result is that athletes are often hired into professional services jobs through access and exposure arranged by the university on the basis of their football talents, even while more academically qualified students are never afforded the opportunity to apply for such positions.

This is not what college athletics was designed to be. College sports, at its heart, is little more than another extracurricular activity, not unlike drama club or writing for the school newspaper, but it has diverged from this path. Each of the benefits described above has come about as a result of program creep for sports, in which universities offer greater and greater resourcing to their sports programs as a means of recruiting the top athletes to their schools. In many cases, the schools do it because of the potential for revenue that athletes bring the university, but the efforts are inconsistent with the university’s broader educational mission. The result is a toxic and dysfunctional environment of athlete pampering that has infected America’s universities, corrupting their mission to grow the next generation of “real world” professionals who will power American innovation through the next century in every other one of thousands of fields besides football.

It is often noted that the popularity of football may drive donations to a school, which can in turn at times be used to help fund academic programming, but these instances are often overblown for the sake of marketing athletics, and in most cases schools’ ballooning athletic budgets are primarily used to support more investment in athletics. Even where the popularity of sports does help fund academic programming, there is still the unresolved “mission” issue of why universities are using only sports for this purpose, as opposed to numerous other tools that would help attract investment that would not detract in the same way sports does from the opportunities for other students. In many schools, the shifted emphasis in reputation from academics to sports has corrupted the potential of universities to attract professors and promote social cohesion in their states and communities around academic and professional progress and innovation, rather than around sports. In far too many communities, sports is considered a “first pathway” to success, with academics a mere fallback.

Rather than help rectify this dysfunctional university environment, many in the media are pushing the situation the other direction, choosing instead to promote damaging advocacy that athletes should be afforded even greater inequitable benefits. One will scarcely find an article that does not advocate in lock step with college athletes in demanding direct payments or salaries from their universities for their participation in athletic activities to supplement their scholarships and other benefits. Like so many issues, such articles paint the issue through a single simplistic lens through the eyes of lone individuals, rather than assessing the issue more broadly or through the lens of non-athlete students. These articles also rarely cover the fact that proposed policies to pay players almost universally are tactically flawed, as they focus on benefit regimes that would exacerbate the benefits for a small handful of unique players who target sports as a career while consequentially punishing players for whom sports are a mere extracurricular activity.

A key component to undoing the societal rot borne from this runaway train of athlete reverence and celebrity worship at all levels is to return amateurism to college sports, thereby reducing the disproportionate incentives on society to revere athletes. Ivy League universities eliminated sports scholarships in 1954 to ensure academics would be prioritized and that sports would serve an important but subservient role as extracurricular activities without dominating the reputations of those universities. At those schools, athletes can be recruited, but (ideally) are only to be admitted if they are academically qualified to get in (save the 2019 college admissions scandal). This is the correct model for the nation at large. While the best athletes may think it unfair that they are subject to the same treatment as other students, such is the nature of school in which all students are considered equal until the day they graduate and can go find jobs at whatever salary levels they choose. Scholarships should be reserved for academic merit, and athletic participation should be an optional activity independent from academic performance, just like all other extracurriculars.

Giving all students equal opportunity to thrive in college is critical to fulfilling the role of universities as educational institutions. It is also a critical component of restoring a balance in society that reduces the hero worship of athletes and fosters greater enthusiasm for academic pursuits among America’s youth. If America is to lead the world in the 21st century it needs young people who aspire to be innovators and thinkers, not just athletes, musicians, and celebrities. It’s high time that colleges do their part to create the conditions where this is achievable. The media along with them need to start working toward creating a better society, rather than so relentlessly trying to shame people into supporting their vision of a worse one.


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