Something of a seismic ripple briefly reverberated through the college sportsphere last week. It was merely the report of a potential vote, but the spasm of protest it produced was revealing. Word got out that the NCAA was considering a proposal to allow athletes who met an unstated academic standard to play immediately upon transferring to a new school. A pearl-clutching chorus instantly began its scales. "It would be the worst rule ever," Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew told ESPN. New Indiana coach Archie Miller told Scout.com the proposal “would cripple teams and programs.” Social media critics began bemoaning how this would upend or ruin the state of college athletics as we know it.
Which begs the question: So what?
There is nothing inherently natural nor virtuous in the NCAA’s heavily regulated model of collegiate athletic amateurism. It exists virtually nowhere outside the United States; ball-playing prodigies in Europe, like student prodigies of all other stripes stateside, are typically funneled into specialized academies and free to, say, profit from the image of their own face. That this model exists in the States is a perversely fitting example of American business and legal ingenuity: the NCAA invented the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s as a trapdoor through which to escape workers’ comp liability. Before then, athletes’ student/employee distinctions had been murky. After, a distinct and unusual dynamic was codified. They were students with employees’ restriction of conduct and movement, and employees with students’ lack of salary.
All the byzantine NCAA rulebook and sanction hijinx since then has worked backward from this premise to justify its existence, and thus the “sanctity” of college amateurism. (Pray tell, whose Olympic enjoyment has been sullied by Usain Bolt posing for Puma?) Even as they earned increasing millions for their bosses, “student-athletes” struggled to borrow arguments supporting labor rights because so many in the stands and the media have accepted the idea that they are somehow not labor. As major college sports metastasized from earnest interscholastic competition to a behemoth business inking billion-dollar TV deals, the motivation for doing so has only increased.
But the growth that has enriched so many has only catalyzed public scrutiny. It has become increasingly difficult to justify why the most financially valuable athletes in the student body are the ones least free to leverage their worth beyond a scholarship. Their coaches and athletic directors often rake in lavish salaries; their fellow students can earn money working in their own areas of expertise. And, of course, those same non-athlete students can change schools without any restrictions, and their coaches are free to jump ship for a bigger payday without punishment. But athletes sitting out a full year before gaining eligibility is somehow now held up as an existential pillar of college athletics. If the NCAA means what it says when it exhaustively emphasizes that its athletes are students, then the least it can do is afford them the same agency as other students are afforded, especially if there are academic requirements attached. And if they’re not like other students, well, that opens the door to some bigger questions the NCAA would rather not entertain.
Of course, the detractors are right that the rule would trigger major repercussions. Roster churn would increase even more than it already has, likely heavily. Big-name schools would be free to raid the talent from smaller ones, who did the hard work of identifying and developing less-heralded recruits. Mid-major Cinderellas may become that much rarer. Underclassmen frustrated by lack of playing time might pack up and leave when biding their time as a backup might be better for their development. But these are all the cost of fairness. And if the fair treatment of your industry’s labor undermines your system, the problem is not with the fair treatment. It’s with your system.
Not that coaches and ADs will hear any of this with open ears. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” But public sentiment is swaying. Recent years have seen progress made in athlete stipends and multi-year scholarship guarantees, and legal actions like Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit and Northwestern football players’ attempts to unionize have garnered support they wouldn’t have in recent decades. The tide may have already turned; any American who buys into this country’s cult of market forces should be able to see it. And now, as college coaches and administrators’ pockets get ever fatter, the NCAA may soon find itself stuck in its own trapdoor.