Just in the last few months, our courts seem to be methodically debunking the myth of the “student athlete.” It’s a shame, but it’s time we faced reality.
We would like to believe that college athletes are students first, football and basketball players second. We pine for the days when all young adults went to college to get an education that made them better citizens, if those days ever really existed.
But earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players were university employees and entitled to decide if they wanted to form a union.
Building on that decision, which had already sent shock waves throughout the NCAA, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken further shattered our fantasy about amateur athletics. She said universities should share the wealth of their highly profitable athletic programs.
Specifically, Wilken said the NCAA’s ban on paying players for using their names, images and likenesses for commercial activity constituted illegal price fixing, and was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. She also knocked down the NCAA ban on offering athletes cost-of-living compensation in addition to scholarships.
Brick-by-brick, the hallowed walls that have traditionally separated student athletes from their professional brethren are coming down.
It’s hard to admit, but high-profile college athletics have been headed this direction for a long time. Fueled by insatiable fans and lured by billions in television revenue, universities conspired with the NCAA to create what have essentially become entertainment divisions.
They allowed some players to skip classes, fake coursework and earn hollow degrees. They looked the other way when players engaged in criminal or unethical behavior. And they pocketed all the money.
When the potential financial rewards reached today’s dizzying heights, it was inevitable that players would want a fair share. Why should a university be allowed to make millions off a student’s name or image but penalize that student for taking money for signing autographs?
We doubt any of this will diminish the fervor for college football and basketball. For many, though, it will change the perception of college athletics from a bastion of amateur achievements to a training ground for professionals.
In other words, these rulings makes us see big-time college sports for what they really are. It’s painful, but facing reality is the adult thing to do.
Still, we lament the trend towards professionalization of college sports because 98 percent of NCAA athletes will never get drafted by a professional team, and even fewer will enjoy the riches of a successful professional career. For the 98 percent, an education will remain the best pathway to a better life, and achievement in the classroom should be recognized and encouraged.