The high-profile NCAA scholar-athlete is a myth. Not a widely believed myth, but at least an idea to which the NCAA, schools, and athletes pay lip service. The elite athletes bound to be first-round draft picks are in college simply to train for the next level. Many pre-professional athletes are students only to the point that they remain eligible to play, and many have had “tutors” write papers and take tests for them to ensure good enough grades. The NCAA and the top athletic colleges know the athletes are making a brief stop there before the pros, but they also require the athletes to forego any possible endorsements or other income while they are in college. Meanwhile, the notoriety from winning a national championship brings the schools millions of dollars and increased applicant attention.
Compounding the athletic priorities of student-athletes is the length of their academic tenure. Basketball players bound for the NBA can leave after as little as one year, and very few with a chance of stardom or even journeyman success stay for four years. Football players must wait three years before entering the NFL draft. But because of the timing of the football season, most, if not all, NFL-bound juniors and seniors don’t attend classes during the spring semester to concentrate on increasing their speed and strength to impress NFL scouts. Many college players follow this five-semester-plan.
Despite the priorities of athletes like Carmelo Anthony — who attended Syracuse University for only one year, won a national championship for the school, and then left to be drafted third overall in the NBA — and Michael Vick — who attended Virginia Tech for three years, led his team to a runner-up finish in the championship game, then left to be drafted first overall in the NFL — the NCAA enforces very strict rules for athletes to maintain their amateur status. It is illegal for coaches, assistant coaches, or the school’s boosters to give gifts to a player, even a meal at a restaurant, from the time they are being recruited in high school until they finish their college career. While the student is still in school he can’t contact or be contacted by professional agents who wish to represent the player once he turns pro. The athlete cannot receive money for endorsements. There are even limits to the amount of money a player can earn in a part-time job or a summer job.
Of course, these rules are widely broken, and scandals break annually where big time schools are punished for violations. Most recently, former USC running back Reggie Bush and his family are accused of receiving over $100,000 in gifts and benefits while he was still in school. Now a rookie with the New Orleans Saints, Bush is facing the loss of his Heisman Trophy, while USC might lose some of their allotted scholarships in the upcoming years. The problem with punishing Bush and USC for such violations is that, at the time he allegedly received the gifts, he was no longer truly an amateur. He was a mini-professional. He was the most famous athlete in the winningest program in the country, and had appeared live on national TV numerous times, leading to countless appearances on SportsCenter and other highlights shows. Bush was being compared not to other college running backs, but to Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers, two NFL legends. As soon as he decided to leave USC, he was virtually guaranteed tens of millions in contract and endorsement money. But to remain eligible to play in college, he needed to reject the numerous gifts offered to him by the agents and boosters who wanted a future piece of Reggie Bush. If only our political lobbying rules were as strict.
Meanwhile, USC and the NCAA made millions of dollars marketing Bush. The NCAA in 2005 had revenues of over $500 million. Ninety percent of that comes from selling broadcast rights, and the vast majority of those rights are from football and men’s basketball, the two most popular sports. The popularity of college sports comes primarily from two sources: fans who want to follow their alma maters, and fans who want to watch the Next Big Thing. Reggie Bush was (and is) the Next Big Thing, as were Anthony and Vick during their college years, and countless others before them. Electrifying players like Bush account for millions of dollars of annual revenue for the NCAA and its schools.
Granted, the NCAA and its member schools do a lot of good deeds with their revenue. The profits from high-revenue sports like football and basketball often subsidize money-losing sports like, well, everything except football and men’s basketball. Athletes in these sports receive scholarships that enable them to parlay their athletic talents into a free college education and a successful future. But not enabling an elite athlete to earn even a fraction of their future paycheck based on his ability, while simultaneously profiting from that player’s skills, effectively turns them into indentured servants.
College sports are a booming industry. With half-a-billion dollars in revenue to the NCAA, and further millions for schools, the athletes most responsible for the success of college sports might naturally feel entitled to some of that money. If everyone knows that they’re only in college as an intermediary to the pros — and colleges make millions off of their talents — the NCAA shouldn’t try so hard to ensure their amateur status for the next one to four years.
Joseph Adamson is a writer living the Washington, DC area.