In just three weeks, college football will cast its powerful spell on millions of Americans. Packed in stadiums and glued to TV screens, we will become obsessed with the performance of elite Division I teams and star athletes.
Most fans only see what the players do on the gridiron. Off the field, players live under extreme pressure, most devoting up to 50 hours a week preparing for game day, virtually giving up all other parts of their lives. If they are severely injured, their long-term career goals may be altered.
Having heard and read many anecdotes about overworked, impoverished scholarship athletes, I used to believe that such players were paraprofessionals and should be paid for their services — "pay-for-play."
The term student-athlete, I believed, was a misnomer; it should have been athlete-student. As such, they deserved more than tuition, books, room and board. They deserved handsome salaries. Amateurism — the NCAA's core principle — was a sham, an effective way to rake in billions of dollars from football (and basketball) each year without sharing the wealth with players.
I began rethinking my position after a group of Northwestern University scholarship football players initiated an effort to unionize, declaring that they are employees. After studying the players' argument and after talking with coaches, athletes, regular students, college presidents and sports writers about the issues, I've changed my mind about pay-for-play.
Totally monetizing college athletics is a bad idea. Although I'm not a die-hard NCAA supporter, I'm back to believing that the organization's principle of amateurism is good for college sports.
Changing my mind wasn't easy. The players' move to unionize quickly gained news coverage and big-name supporters, and it became a potential institutional game-changer after the newly formed College Athletes Players Association submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the players. It became more creditable when a Chicago region-director of the NLRB ruled that the players were employees under federal law, giving them the right to form a union and bargain collectively.
On July 3, Northwestern, the NCAA and other major stakeholders filed briefs with the NLRB in Washington to overturn the regional ruling. Most notably, in a friend-of-the-court brief, the American Council on Education, comprised of 1,800 college presidents, was unequivocal in its opposition: "Student-athletes participate for their own benefit; they do not render services for compensation. They are not employees and therefore not subject to the National Labor Relations Act."
Those supporting pay-for-play argue that the amount of control the university has over players and the scholarships players receive as compensation for their services meet the definition of "employees." They also argue, and correctly so, that top players are models of personal sacrifice and dedication.
Northwestern players and their advocates have legitimate grievances, but they ignore the realities at the heart of amateurism in college sports. Two realities: Four years of college costs can be more than $200,000 at some institutions, and while most students leave college with debt that takes years to pay off, scholarship athletes don't depart with this burden.
Beyond its monetary value, think of the lifelong benefits of four years of free college education: the learning, the career preparation, the personal maturation and the networking.
As a former college football player, professor and graduate student at a university with bowl championship football and basketball teams, I have known many athletes from low-income families whose lives have been positively transformed by the campus experience. Some have told me that college saved their lives.
While I oppose salaries for student-athletes, I support generous monthly stipends, guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses and policies that lessen the risk of serious brain injuries.
It was good news on July 22 when the NCAA tentatively settled a $70 million class-action lawsuit involving athletes' head injuries. The settlement included concussion testing and other research. Unfortunately, it didn't include money to compensate players who face long-term problems as a result of head trauma while in uniform, a core ethical problem that must be addressed.
Supporters of pay-for-play argue that this failure to compensate injured scholarship athletes is more reason for salaries.
I disagree. If scholarships are fully monetized as part of a professional pay-for-play scheme, the principle of the amateur will disappear. The result will be that college athletics will cease to be an entertaining, organic and wholesome part of campus life — a parallel universe in every way.