April 5, 2021

BERNSTEIN | The NCAA’s ‘Amateurism’ Fallacy

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While most Cornell student-athletes and sports fans idly await the return of competition, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is sitting in front of the Supreme Court, defending its right to not pay its players. On March 31st, the Court heard oral arguments, but it feels like college athletes and fans have seen hundreds of different court decisions about compensation for players that never seem to yield a clear answer of what’s to happen. This time, however, there is a chance to be different, and with any luck for hundreds of student athletes at Cornell and nationwide, it will be.

The legal question at the center of NCAA vs Alston is the following: Does a prohibition of compensation for student athletes violate antitrust law under the Sherman Act? The case came about when former West Virginia University runningback Shawn Alston sued the NCAA in 2014 on these grounds. Schools are currently allowed to give certain education-related benefits to student-athletes, but those are capped. Alston’s team argued that by placing a cap on the value of benefits provided to an athlete by a school, the NCAA illegally prevents athletes from earning their full value, according to ESPN.

The NCAA’s defense was grounded in the concept of “amateurism”, saying that student-athletes should be prohibited from compensation on the basis of them being students. Its reasoning, however, is vague, and it’s one of the main things that the Supreme Court questioned the NCAA about last Wednesday.

“Why does the NCAA get to define what ‘pay’ is?” asked Justice Amy Coney Barrett. It’s a good question, as the NCAA doesn’t even allow student-athletes to profit off their name, image, or likeness : While any other student can make money off a youtube channel or sign an endorsement deal, athletes can’t.

This case could change that, though. While the suit is only over education-related benefits, it has the chance to expose amateurism as fraud and exploitation. 

The justification for amateurism essentially comes down to two principles. The first it’s always been this way, since the NCAA was founded 115 years ago. The second is that allowing any compensation will make college sports pay-for-play, like professional sports. It says that unpaid athletes is a big part of its appeal.The NCAA makes billions of dollars on the backs of unpaid laborers on the grounds of maintaining precedent and keeping its culture.

There’s no real argument in the history defense. If the NCAA was founded today, it would never get away with not paying players. But 115 years ago things were different. Time passes and the money trees grow. College sports weren’t valuable in 1906, but now, the NCAA rakes in billions of dollars without paying its athletes.

For the pay-for-play defense, meanwhile, you have to assume that paying players will change the way college sports are played and watched. The NCAA really thinks that people like watching unpaid athletes. It says people will lose interest if athletes are paid. I think that’s just ridiculous. 

Do you, the athlete or the fan, prefer watching sports when the athletes are unpaid? Does that really change the way you watch the game?The truth is, it doesn’t. People like sports and players making money won’t drive away interest. It won’t change the way that college sports are played either. 

Alston’s Attorney Jeffrey Kessler refuted the NCAA’s claims to ESPN last week. He said, “We believe nothing bad will happen. Just like nothing bad happened after the O’Bannon case they lost. Nothing bad happened after the Board of Regents case they lost. Nothing bad happened after the NCAA v. Law case that they lost. They always warn, the NCAA, that this will be the thing that ruins college sports. And what we find instead is that when they’re forced to comply with the law it actually helps college sports.”

In the 2014 O’Bannon case, Ed O’Bannon, an all-American basketball player, sued the NCAA over the lack of compensation and consent for his depiction in an NCAA-licensed video game. Because of this case, former athletes are entitled to compensation for the NCAA’s commercial use of their image. 

In the Board of Regents case in 1984, the Supreme Court stripped the NCAA of its control of television rights, which is why college sports have become so lucrative and can be broadcasted so frequently. 

Lastly, the Law vs NCAA case forbade the organization from limiting the salaries of certain entry-level coaches. 

Like Kessler says, in all of these cases, the NCAA claims that college athletics will be ruined, and it’s wrong. College athletics are as strong and popular now as they’ve ever been. Tonight, millions of people will watch Baylor and Gonzaga play in the men’s NCAA basketball championship game, just as they watched Stanford win the women’s final yesterday, and as they’ve watched both March Madness tournaments over the past month. This interest won’t just stop if players receive the compensation that they’re entitled to.

The NCAA’s refusal to pay players in the name of amateurism is a joke. It exploits student-athletes by trying to maintain an outdated and problematic status quo. The good news, however, is that the Supreme Court is likely to see through the organization’s façade of trying to help students. The oral arguments heard last Wednesday were ugly for the NCAA, and it’s clear that it’s losing power. For student-athletes nationwide and at Cornell, this is an important and necessary progression.

Daniel Bernstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dgb222@cornell.edu. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.