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May 12, 2011, 10:44 AM ET
What is amateurism, anyway?

by John Gasaway

The debate over whether college athletes “should be paid” is sabotaged by language. College athletes are already paid. First, they receive a free education. (The current aggregate figure for student loan debt in the U.S. is about $1 trillion. Former D-I scholarship athletes carry $0 of that.) Secondly, they of course receive additional cash for housing and books. If they’re smart they find ways to stretch that cash, just like you and I did. No one has a problem with making sure these allowances are sufficient for a student-athlete to spring for an occasional pizza or movie, just like you and I tried to do.

Then again you and I weren’t Denard Robinson or Jimmer Fredette. With a tiny number of star athletes in football and men’s basketball, there’s a huge discrepancy between the value of the scholarship and the cash allowances and what the stars are actually worth to their school. That difference should be made up by outside parties like agents and advertisers, not by the schools. Instead of an athletic director puzzling over creating a pay scale that will accommodate both a national player of the year and the last player on the bench, outside parties acting in their own self-interest will strike whatever deal they can, just as they have for years with a suggestive lack of controversy or even notice with Olympic athletes.

The NCAA has always prohibited this kind of activity, of course, but they can’t explain why, exactly. I agree with NCAA president Mark Emmert that college athletic programs shouldn’t pay salary-type amounts to athletes, but that’s a far cry from justifying a blanket prohibition on any compensation from any outside source.

As it stands now amateurism is mistakenly defined as meaning players “aren’t paid.” Actually, they are paid. We should instead define amateurism simply as a realm where players aren’t paid salaries by the teams they play for. But if those same players can line up some interest from an agent or a national advertiser, bully for them. To repeat:

In other words the NCAA would enable student-athletes, in exchange for performing at an acceptable level academically, to pursue what they love heedless of money — sort of what the NCAA says it’s been doing all along. But “heedless” here means that whether money materializes or not the NCAA wishes you well, so long as said money doesn’t come from the school or on its behalf. You’re a big kid now and you can handle these decisions.

If, on the other hand, you’re in favor of the status quo, my question is still this:

What are the tangible benefits to student-athletes of a blanket prohibition on any kind of compensation from any source?

I am open to persuasion. Show me the advantages of this set-up: what are the direct positive results of this prohibition to student-athletes? I am yet to hear an answer directed specifically to this point but, who knows, when I do I may come to champion this system myself. I’m all ears.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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