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Why now, more than ever, the notion of student-athletes is an antiquated ideal

The time has come to end the narrative of amateurism in collegiate sports. It’s long overdue

Ohio State players run onto the field prior to College Football Playoff championship game vs. Alabama in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Ohio State players run onto the field for the first half of an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game against Alabama, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Chris O’Meara, Associated Press

As another college football season approaches, the game is in a state of upheaval and this one is revolutionizing it in a way that hasn’t been seen since the first game was televised. Consider the monumental changes that have occurred.

Transfer portals, created in 2018, give players more freedom to move from team to team than NFL players. This year marked the creation of the NIL rule, which allows college players to make money with their name, image and likeness and opens the door to agents and representation. A recent Supreme Court ruling stated that schools could give players money toward educational benefits, such as computers, and this in addition to the monthly cost-of-living stipend that was approved a few years ago. The court ruling also opened the door for more dramatic changes in the way the NCAA treats “student-athletes” in the future.

Meanwhile, during the past three years, the average revenue for the 25 richest schools combined is $2.7 billion, according to Forbes. Universities have wandered way off into the weeds, far from their original purpose (education); they have become football businesses, investing hundreds of millions of dollars on stadiums, locker rooms, fields, weight rooms, coaches salaries. Schools, sponsors and coaches are making millions.

There should no longer be any pretense about this being an amateur sport. Let’s call college football what it is: A professional sports league.

Given all of the above, why not go all the way?

Isn’t it high time to give up the “student-athlete” hypocrisy entirely?

Pay the players a wage as a university employee. Class attendance and degrees are desirable but optional. Players can still obtain a free college education, but it’s their responsibility to attend class, study, earn passing grades and take advantage of the opportunity. They’re adults; no one is going to force them. This also would eliminate the NCAA’s thick rulebook — filled with rules that are nearly impossible to enforce and that are constantly broken — while also eliminating the heavy-handed enforcement arm of the NCAA, which has applied the rules in ridiculously petty ways.

Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn wonders if players will even have time for class these days. He recently told ESPN’s Dan Patrick, “ … between practice and then NIL responsibilities for marketing (and) so forth; where does school even come into factor? Like, where does it come into play?” He said a player would be more motivated to skip a class to fulfill a well-paying marketing appearance.

“I mean, is that a hard decision?” Quinn said.

Alabama coach Nick Saban says quarterback Bryce Young, a sophomore who has thrown just 13 passes, is already earning nearly seven figures in NIL deals.

Saban probably was motivated to drop that little nugget of information into an interview because it will attract other top recruits hoping to cash in, as well, but it reveals the opportunities that are available at least for the top players in elite programs. For the vast majority of players, there will be no big paydays, but couldn’t they simply earn a wage, play football and pursue a degree and make their own decisions about how they go about it?

There’s nothing sacred about the “student-athlete” designation that the NCAA loves to brandish like a flag. It’s simply a term that the NCAA crafted 70 years ago to avoid paying workman compensation to the widow of a football player who died of an injury. It was born out of self-interest. It’s the same story with the other term they love to wear so proudly — amateurism, which was created by Victorian England in the 19th century as a way for the upper classes to keep the working class out of amateur sports. If the International Olympic Committee can give up amateurism, so can the NCAA.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh addressed the NCAA’s embrace of amateurism in his concurring opinion, writing, “Those traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student-athletes who are not fairly compensated. Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”

For far too long, the NCAA has used the terms of “amateurism” and “student-athlete” simply to maintain its hold on free labor to earn its riches. The waves of change have ushered in conditions favorable to the abandonment of that sham completely.