The Immoral Defense of ‘Amateurism’ as the Primary Virtue of College Sports

by | Feb 21, 2003 | Education, POLITICS

Consider the following scenario: A junior at a major university is majoring in marketing. She is one of the department’s most successful and intelligent students. All of her professors agree she will rise to the top of her profession someday. Now suppose this marketing student decides, while still in college, to start her own business, […]

Consider the following scenario: A junior at a major university is majoring in marketing. She is one of the department’s most successful and intelligent students. All of her professors agree she will rise to the top of her profession someday.

Now suppose this marketing student decides, while still in college, to start her own business, creating advertising campaigns for local businesses. With her talent and dedication, the business takes off quickly, and by her senior year she’s making more than $30,000 annually.

How would her professors react? Most likely, they’d applaud her initiative and achievement. The fact she’s still in college and earning money practicing her chosen vocation would make the accomplishment all the more worthy of accolades.

Now take this scenario, but instead of our student being a junior in the marketing department, we now have a male student who is attending college on a football scholarship. He’s one of the nation’s top offensive linemen. His team is 10-1 this season, a lock to win the conference championship and secure a berth in a BCS Bowl, which will bring in millions to the university. All the professional scouts agree–when this player enters the NFL Draft, he will be a top-five draft pick and receive a multi-million dollar signing bonus.

What’s the difference between this player and the marketing student? If the player makes even one dollar off his professional skills before leaving college, he will be punished, ruled ineligible for intercollegiate competition, and shunned by his university’s administration as an example of all that is wrong with modern sports. For the football player will no longer have the vaunted status of “amateur” to give his work moral credibility.

This week, the Nebraska legislature (the nation’s only single-chamber state legislature) will consider a bill to pay football players at the publicly-owned University of Nebraska-Lincoln a stipend. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, sees this as a simple matter of fairness. And the numbers support him. In the past decade, UNL football produced more than $150 million in profits, while athletic scholarships totaled about $14 million.

UNL is not alone. Of the 62 colleges playing in the six major NCAA Division I-A football conferences (the so-called “BCS schools”), only three failed to turn a profit last year. Among all 117 Division I-A football schools, the average profit was almost $5 million last year.

Yet the players who essentially earn this profit are entitled to virtually none of the proceeds. More importantly, they’re constantly told it’s unethical for them to accept any form of compensation related to their football talents. The NCAA, the cartel that governs college sports, holds that “amateurism” is the prime virtue, and that all must be sacrificed to preserve this value.

But why is amateurism a virtue? In Objectivist ethics, a “virtue” is an expression of rationality, something which expresses the value of a man’s life. For example, “independence” is a virtue, because it recognizes that man must form his own judgments and live by the work of his own mind. In contrast, “amateurism,” especially as applied by the NCAA, is not a virtue, because it holds that a man must–as an inflexible ethical principle–reject any form of compensation for his own work.

This is not to say an athlete that engages in sport without pay is immoral. Millions of people play sports recreationally or at lower intercollegiate levels without athletic scholarships. These people are as virtuous as professional athletes, because they derive mental and emotional rewards from their efforts just the same. The issue here is whether high-level college football players are virtuous in maintaining the current “amateur” system.

Consider this quote from NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro on the Nebraska bill: “I don’t think there are many, if any, college presidents who believe it’s the right thing to do to pay their students to play sports… If you tried to do this, I think you would take first-rate college programs and turn them into third-rate professional programs.”

There are two ethical judgments contained in this statement. The first is that is categorically wrong to pay college football players, and the second is that it’s better to be a “first-rate” college program than a “third-rate” professional one. Is either statement valid? No, because both statements require one to accept an altruist view of ethics that’s inherently irrational.

Returning to my opening example, why is it acceptable for a marketing student to profit off their knowledge while still in college, but not a football player? The crude, yet accurate, answer is that a university doesn’t profit off of a student’s marketing business directly as they do the football player. Giving the player money means the university keeps less. In one sense, you can argue this is exploitation. But that’s a simplistic view, given the fact that (1) the university gave the football player a scholarship in the first place and (2) the player voluntarily agreed to accept his “amateur” status.

A more accurate view of the football player’s situation is that he’s part of the great Medieval tradition of the guild system. In a sense, he’s an apprentice of football, studying at the feet of his coaching masters, and earning a limited income until he’s ready to professionally practice on his own. As I noted above, the NCAA is a “cartel,” which is simply a modernized version of the guild. They are, by design, restrictive entities that maximize profits for the masters through utilizing inexpensive apprentice labor.

What the guild analogy also tells us, however, is that these college football players are not “amateurs” in any sense of the concept. A true amateur is a hobbyist, one who derives emotional rewards only, and neither seeks nor anticipates financial compensation. That certainly doesn’t describe most Division I-A football players. Almost all of them are in college with the intent of seeking an NFL career someday. The mere fact they’re given scholarships in the first place negates their “amateur” status. After all, these scholarships are not based on academic achievement or other specialized skills–they’re based on football ability. Thus, the college presidents are paying their students to play sports, despite their ethical protests to the contrary.

Now what of Renfro’s argument that directly paying players would “take first-rate college programs and turn them into third-rate professional programs?” Assuming this statement is true, so what? Is there something dishonorable about being a “third-rate professional program”? Minor league baseball is essentially a “third-rate professional program,” yet one never hears the claim that Class A players are ethically inferior to Division I college baseball players. The sports fan is sophisticated enough to distinguish between major- and minor-league talent, but it does not follow that he won’t still tune in to see the lesser product. And it’s not like paying college football players would diminish the quality of the players or play, since it would be the exact same players in either case. Heck, if college basketball players were paid, the talent pool might well be strengthened as the tide of marginal players declaring for the NBA draft would be stemmed.

Most successful sports go through a phase where the title of “professional’ is disdained. Golf is a good example. For many years, until about the 1950s, touring professionals were considered the scourge of the golf world. Making one’s living playing golf was considered disreputable. Today, however, organized amateur golf is a dying species. The U.S. Amateur, once a tournament equal in prominence to the U.S. Open, is now little more than a showcase for players about to turn professional. The USGA implicitly admitted defeat years ago, when they created the “Mid-Amateur” championship for older players–the true amateurs.

This may provide a useful roadmap for the NCAA. After all, not every football school is in a financial position to pay its players. But those major schools that are in a position could simply form a new entity, outside the NCAA if necessary, which could operate as a semi-professional league. Those schools that wish to remain “amateur” operations should then do just that–operate programs without big budgets or athletic scholarships of any kind.

The Nebraska legislation, while not the structural overhaul suggested above, is a positive step in opening the debate. The bill itself will likely not take effect, since it requires three other states with Big 12 Conference schools to pass similar laws, but the fact that the NCAA has been put on the defensive for it’s outdated–and immoral–defense of “amateurism” as the prime virtue of college sports shows that the time has come for the debate to begin. Now let’s make sure the debate doesn’t end prematurely without the correct resolution.

S. M. Oliva is president of Citizens for Voluntary Trade and a senior fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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