The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism

Dead in eight years? When the Dream Teamers, the epitome of Olympic professionalization--took the court in Barcelona two decades ago, they were greeted as rock stars. The world did not lament the absence of America's traditional unpaid collegiate all-star.

Patrick Hruby
July 25, 2012

Things were falling apart. The system would not hold. For decades, it had clung to the amateur ideal, enforced by a watchful governing body: Athletes could not receive material gain, directly or indirectly, for playing sports.

Only the cash came anyway, in drips and drabs and great big gushers, mostly under the table, the public's insatiable demand for spectacle rushing to meet a limited supply of talented performers. Some decried the resulting corruption and hypocrisy; others lambasted the unfairness of it all. Prominent voices demanded wholesale change. Still, amateurism's defenders held fast, with one telling Sports Illustrated that "if we water down the rules now, the [sport] will be destroyed within eight years."

The above does not describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association and contemporary big-time college sports.

The year was 1960. The subject was the Olympics. Once upon a time, the Games were an amateur affair, as committed to no-pay-for-play—no salaries, no endorsements—as today's NCAA. Of course, that was before former International Olympic Committee head Juan Antonio Samaranch pushed for the inclusion of professional athletes. And before basketball's 1992 Dream Team. And before a bevy of pros in everything from track and field to table tennis—in short, the world's best—flooded the Games.

Yet on the way to a grubby Gomorra of unfettered sports commerce, a funny thing happened: The watered-down Olympics didn't exactly sink to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

"Dead in eight years?" said Olympic historian Bill Mallon, who has written dozens of books about the Games, in a recent interview. "If anything, the Olympics are more popular and powerful than ever. It has been decades since they opened up the Games to the professionals, and they're still going strong."

Over the next two weeks in London, LeBron James will lead USA Basketball's star-studded squad of multimillionaire NBA players. Tennis pros Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will play for gold on the grounds of Wimbledon. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will take a break from filming fast-food sandwich and electrolyte-laden sports drink commercials to swim and run at inhuman speeds.

Meanwhile, fans won't raise a peep. They'll be too busy enjoying the multibillion-dollar show—a show that ought to serve as an object lesson for college sports.

"My point of view is that there is absolutely nothing wrong, unethical, or immoral about people making a living by playing sports," said Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven who has written extensively on college sports ethics and economics. "The Olympics realized that. Even the NCAA realizes that. I interviewed [former NCAA president]Myles Brand for a book, and he said that notion of amateurism has outlived its usefulness. It doesn't fit in the 21st century. It didn't even fit in the 20th century."

Indeed, when it comes to the NCAA's embrace of amateurism—otherwise known as restraint of trade, set to the Chariots of Fire soundtrack—the Olympics provide a compelling case study in why and how college sports should and could change.

Worshipping a false ideal

The first problem with amateurism is that there's no such thing—or at the very least, no agreed-upon working definition of the concept. Ohio State doesn't allow amateur football players to receive free tattoos, but does lavish them with tuition, books, room and board. Meanwhile, the Ivy League frowns on athletic scholarships.

The Olympics had possibly the most stringent definition of amateurism. According to 1960 Olympic rules, athletes who simply had decided to turn pro—that is, committed the thought crime of choosing to receive compensation for their sports performances at an indeterminate point in the future—were cast out of the amateur temple. As former IOC head Avery Brundage told Sports Illustrated at the time, "[amateurism] is a thing of the spirit, and hence is very difficult to define."

Note: this is a polite way of saying that the idea is hogwash.

The modern Olympics claimed they embraced amateurism as a way of embracing classical antiquity. The only catch? The ancient Greeks valued athletic vows of poverty about as much as modern Greece values federal tax collection. As Dr. Neil Faulkner, a British historian and author of A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics puts it:

[Ancient Olympic] champions invariably became very rich men. They may have left Olympia with only an olive crown, but they could expect ample reward for their efforts at home, and they could earn generous prizes thereafter by appearing at any of some hundreds of local sports festivals.

In reality, amateurism in both the Olympics and college sports comes from the same place: Victorian England. Specifically, snooty British elites who enjoyed rowing, winning, and keeping the unwashed, day-laboring masses at arm's length. "Amateurism really started when the people who were rowing boats on the Thames for a living started beating all the rich British aristocrats," Mallon said. "That wasn't right. So they started a concept of amateurism that didn't exist in ancient Greece, extending it more and more to the notion of being a gentleman, someone who didn't work for a living and only did sport as a hobby."

The English notion of amateurism was copied by Harvard, Yale, and other American schools, which also gave birth to college sports. According to Sports Illustrated, the system had less to do with high-minded ideas about education than about enforcing a social caste system:

both in America and in England a gentleman might hire an ex-prizefighter, a golf trainer or a tennis teacher to coach his son and might even brush up his own game in a round with the professional. But when it was over, the pro left by the service entrance and the gentleman went in to tea.

Prohibition doesn't work

The father of former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton allegedly solicits $180,000 from a second school in exchange for his son's Heisman Trophy-winning services. Five other former Auburn players claim that they were given sexual favors and cash while being recruited by and playing for the school, including post-game "money handshakes" from friends of the program. Are these things wrong? Somehow different than the signing and performance bonuses handed out in, say, investment banking? Or are they simply against NCAA rules? By holding onto amateurism and pretending a vibrant, competitive market for collegiate athletic talent doesn't exist, the NCAA has simply pushed the campus sports economy underground; as was the case with Prohibition, the result is a crime and corruption problem that otherwise wouldn't exist.

"When you label everything a violation, everything is going to be a violation," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and founder of the National College Players Association, a campus athlete advocacy group. "It's going to taint the sport, demonize players that have simply broken oppressive rules that works against their best interests."

Way back when, the amateur Olympics faced a similar set of issues: a nonsensical system; inconsistent enforcement; a losing game of free market whack-a-mole with athletes on the (utterly reasonable) take; growing public distrust and disgust. Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals in the 1912 Olympics pentathlon and decathlon—won while wearing a borrowed pair of shoes—because he previously had played minor league baseball for $2 a day. By the 1960s, however, Olympic athletes were officially allowed to receive "broken time" payments, compensation for the time they missed from work while competing in sports. According to Mallon, such payments were often wink-wink, while under-the-table payments to track and field stars were commonplace. "Certainly by the late 1950s, a lot of American athletes were finding ways around amateurism," he said. "And in the Eastern Bloc, the athletes were state-sponsored."

In the middle of the last century, French sportswriter and former L'Equipe editor Gaston Meyer summed up his objections to amateurism: "Do not forbid what you can't prevent." And to think: he wasn't even talking about college athletes interacting with sports agents.

Salaries aren't mandatory

Supporters of college sports amateurism often claim that scrapping the system would be like giving all Americans equal access to health care: a nice idea, but a legal and fiscal impossibility. After all, letting student-athletes earn money means paying them a market wage. Which in turn means axing currently subsidized campus sports like tennis and volleyball; fending off inevitable Title IX lawsuits; dealing with a probable athlete union; possibly saying goodbye to the NCAA's all-important federal tax-exempt status.

Only here's the thing: Salaries aren't mandatory.

The Olympics doesn't pay participants. It simply allows them to get paid. There's a difference. A difference college sports should welcome with open arms. Don't make campus athletes university employees. But do let them be like Phelps, appearing in commercials and on the cover of video games, profiting off their fame and image like everyone else in America. Including their coaches. Doing so won't cost the current college sports industrial complex a penny of the billions it receives for men's football and basketball broadcast rights; if anything, it will help grow and share the wealth without having to share too much of said wealth. Bruce Jenner's iconic paid appearance on a Wheaties box was good for the former decathlete and good for his sport; if Brundage's ghost shed a single Iron Eyes Cody tear at the rank commercialism of it all, well, boo-hoo.

"Players already endorse products," Huma said. "They already serve as billboards for the shoe companies. They're used in video games. They're used in lots of ways. Schools have fundraisers where they sign autographs and gear on behalf of the school. So it's hypocritical to claim some moral stance that that the players shouldn't receive money for this."

Money is not a learning disability

When pressed to defend the current system, NCAA president Mark Emmert and other college sports power brokers typically fall back on a shopworn argument: schools exist to educate students, and students making money by playing sports would undercut said mission.

Left unsaid: how, exactly?

Salaried professors don't undermine education. Nor do students working their way through school. Yet somehow, athletes are different and special, prone to mental and moral ruin upon unrestricted exposure to dollar bills. Perhaps because they run really, really fast. Nobody had a problem with Natalie Portman filming Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones while attending Harvard—yet when former Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom accepted endorsement money for his Olympic-level side career in freestyle skiing, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. This is mushy thinking, paternalistic and condescending, an echo of the laughably outdated arguments for preserving Olympic amateurism once presented in Sports Illustrated:

most athletes and sports officials oppose [eliminating Olympic amateurism]. It would, they maintain, either discourage youth altogether from taking up sports or encourage those with talent to devote their entire lives to sports until they end up at 30 or 35 as jobless has-beens. Unless they simultaneously practice a trade or profession, champion athletes, according to these men, tend to become like the champions of the original Olympics whom Euripides described as "slaves of their bellies" or, as Philostratus put it, "sorry slobs and spineless people."

Sorry slobs? Spineless people? Please. Andre Agassi devoted much of his life to professional tennis. He made a bundle. Never went to college. He won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He's now a noted philanthropist, the founder of a Las Vegas college prep academy for disadvantaged youth. Meanwhile, Joe Paterno was a bronzed paragon of the college sports status quo, a one-time classics scholar who presumably studied Euripides. He ended up being, well, Joe Paterno.

"Big time college sports, according to the NCAA, must maintain a clear line between collegiate and professional sports because there's an educational component," Sack said. "That's a bullshit argument."

Fact: a student-athlete with money in his or her pocket can still be a successful student. A good person, too. Just like anyone else.

Dropping amateurism won't hurt the product

His childhood hero was American decathlete Bob Mathias.His favorite Olympic moment was 1980's "Miracle on Ice." Stephen Harris loves the Games. But his ardor is diminishing. An associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History, Harris preferred the amateur Olympics, liked the idea of an international competition rooted in peace, friendship and sport for its own sake.

"I just think pros should not be in the Olympics," he said. "For me, it takes the fun out it."

Harris is in the minority. In the 1970s, the Olympics began loosening its amateur requirements; by the mid-1990s, professional athletes in every sport save boxing were free to compete. The result? Stronger, more fan-friendly Games. Consider the numbers. Despite shrinking, fragmenting television audiences, the Olympicscontinue to produce boffo ratings. According to the IOC, the mostly amateur 1980 Lake Placid Games earned $30 million in sponsorship revenue; by contrast, the wholly professional 2002 Salt Lake Games cleared $840 million. And while the IOC had just $200,000 in cash reserves in 1980, it now oversees a multibillion dollar enterprise.

Dead in eight years? When the Dream Teamers—the epitome of Olympic professionalization—took the court in Barcelona two decades ago, they were greeted as rock stars. The world did not lament the absence of America's traditional unpaid collegiate all-star squad; it happily welcomed its new basketball overlords. After all, fans don't tune in to watch salaries. They tune in to watch elite athletes do jaw-dropping things. Today, international basketball has never been better. Or more popular.

"The biggest lesson of the Olympics is that you shouldn't listen when somebody says we wouldn't compensate the talent," said Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist with extensive sports experience. "People's love of competition trumps anybody's love of athlete poverty. There's clearly something about athletes playing for their countries and the gathering of nations that has huge appeal. But it was romantic—and irrational—to think that the market demand for that had anything to do with with what the athletes earn before or during the Olympics."

The college sports market is no different. Fans want high-level play. They enjoy rooting for particular schools. The appeal is tribal. When Arizona faces Stanford, no one cares if the one team's scholarships are worth more, or if the other squad's star quarterback is getting a cash handshake from an overzealous booster. Eliminate amateurism tomorrow, and big-time college football and basketball fans won't desert en masse; if anything, they might like NCAA sports more, given that hypocrisy and corruption will no longer be core components of the exercise.

"The concern that college athletes need to be connected to the college mission through amateurism is a red herring," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor in Drexel University's Department of Sport Management and co-author of the book College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth."If that's the case, why don't we have this incredible uprising when school's aren't graduating 100 percent of their players? Nobody boycotts a stadium because the starting line didn't graduate. My sense is that the college product is connected to locale. Alums will still care about their team regardless of they are amateur or professional.

"It's pretty interesting to ask why the NCAA continues to hold onto this concept of amateurism despite the fact that the Olympics parted ways with it. All this handwringing about what would happen if we paid college athletes, the destruction of the system—similar fears were raised about women's entry into college sports, and in retrospect, they weren't borne out."

A half-century ago, former British runner and Member of Parliament Chris Chataway called for the end of Olympic amateurism, arguing that "to drop the pretense would do away with a lot of the subterfuge and a constant source of bickering between the competing nations." Finally, belatedly, the Games saw the wisdom in his words. Why can't college sports do the same? Last fall, I attended a Washington, D.C. meeting in which Emmert promised piecemeal, incremental NCAA reform —but no revolution. Afterward, I asked former University of Maryland basketball star Len Elmore if schools would be better off emulating the Olympics. Elmore furrowed his brow. He was eloquent. He was serious. He made the same old argument for an outdated system, a retreat into semantics and sentiment: if we pay amateur athletes, he said, they'll be professionals. And then they won't be amateurs. Exactly right.