Writing in the Atlantic, Taylor Branch (interviewed above) has a hard hitting and informative essay on the history of college athletics in the United States, titled The Shame of College Sports. Here is an excerpt:
For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.Branch, rightly in my view, compares the evolution of the amateur ideal in the Olympics to college athletics, foreshadowing change coming to the NCAA:
As it turns out, my own views are not so far off from those expressed by Branch.
This sweeping shift left the Olympic reputation intact, and perhaps improved. Only hardened romantics mourned the amateur code. “Hey, come on,” said Anne Audain, a track-and-field star who once held the world record for the 5,000 meters. “It’s like losing your virginity. You’re a little misty for awhile, but then you realize, Wow, there’s a whole new world out there!”
Without logic or practicality or fairness to support amateurism, the NCAA’s final retreat is to sentiment. The Knight Commission endorsed its heartfelt cry that to pay college athletes would be “an unacceptable surrender to despair.” Many of the people I spoke with while reporting this article felt the same way. “I don’t want to pay college players,” said Wade Smith, a tough criminal lawyer and former star running back at North Carolina. “I just don’t want to do it. We’d lose something precious.”
“Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way poss-ible: with a free education.” This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.