NCAA beginning to admit it employs athletes

As befits a higher education organization, the National College Athletic Association knows its English literature. Although there is no official acknowledgement of it, the governing body’s most recent edict clearly owes a debt to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”: All colleges are equal, but some colleges are more equal than others.

In the NCAA’s Division I, there are 350 colleges and universities. The new rules apply to 65 of them: the ones with the most sports money.

The new rules will apply to the five largest conferences: the ACC, Big 10, SEC, Big 12, Pac 12, and also to Notre Dame. These are the schools with the athletic programs that bring in the most money and supply most of the key manpower needs of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

It is not clear whether the NCAA is leading or following in this latest move, but the smart money is on following. Recent court rulings have established the right of college football players to form a labor union as well as the right of college athletes to share in monies derived from the use of their names, images or likenesses in marketing — possibly including radio and TV broadcasts.

Like it or not, it looks like the day of amateur college athletics and the ideal of the “scholar athlete” is coming to an end. The remains of the tradition will carry on, but its light will shine in the smaller schools where competitive sports remain as part of the “whole person” concept of higher education.

There are many who say that amateur athletics was a sham anyway and will not be missed; that the old system, with its increasingly Byzantine rules — for college athletes, parents of athletes, coaches, tutors, staffers, agents, and even fans — invited and even encouraged cheating and corruption.

They are not wrong. The old system, which will still apply to the majority of schools, is difficult to enforce, especially when the commitment to the amateur athletics and scholar athletes is weakened by daily combat with economic opportunity and demands.

They might add that the new system is at least honest in recognizing economic reality: The big-money sports programs at these 65 schools are different from the cost-center sports programs at the rest of America’s higher education institutions. The new rules simply begin to cut the athletes in on the action.

It’s not clear that economics is the villain in this story. After all, the 65 schools (the “LXV” schools in the Latin of classics and Super Bowls) include some of the top academic universities in the country — in spite of running sports programs that are often look-alikes of professional franchises.

While the new NCAA rules did not create all of the problems besetting the college athletics’ relationship with its academic parent they will legitimize them, which is an issue in its own right.

Defining students playing sports as employees, for example, would not by itself present an insuperable problem for a university to absorb. It isn’t even unprecedented. Colleges and universities have a long history of offering employment to students. Libraries, dining halls, dormitories and other facilities were staffed in part by student-workers.

The difference, though, is that defining incoming athletes as employees will further isolate them from the rest of the student body and, in fact, from the rest of the university. It will clarify beyond doubt that they are there to play football, basketball, or some other sport. That is their job.

Employee status will also encourage the “one and done” approach in college athletics, where the most proficient athletes complete a year of playing basketball for a university, then declare eligibility for the NBA draft. This prompts some schools to recruit academically deficient athletes whose skills give the school a shot at a championship, providing an academic path that will enable the student to join the professional ranks virtually untouched by anything resembling higher education.

Some of the 65 have been resisting, more or less successfully, the forces that are driving a wedge between athletes and scholars. These schools still see the “scholar-athlete” as an admirable and achievable goal. We can expect them to absorb these new rules and continue their programs as they are, but they will undoubtedly find it increasingly difficult to recruit players and compete in the new semi-professional leagues that are being created.

The NCAA’s new rules are not all bad; recognizing economic reality is generally a good idea. Recognizing, accurately, that top-level college sports are really part of the lucrative entertainment industry, though, brings some obvious conflicts with our ideas and ideals of what a college or university is all about. We should think about that.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for The Herald Business Journal.

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