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Should college athletes be paid for their performance? Should athletic programs pay college athletes for using the athletes in marketing and business ventures? Two different questions and two highly debated, yet predictable, responses. If you ask this question to current and former college athletes, the answer to both is likely to be “yes” — but heads of athletic departments are likely to say “no.” So who is right, and who gets to determine the right answer?
This debate is at the heart of a lawsuit currently in front of a US District Court, O’Bannon v. NCAA. This case saw current and former Division I collegiate athletes bring suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) alleging impermissible licensing and use of college athletes’ likenesses. In November, a US District Court Judge partially certified the class action against the NCAA, ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor on NCAA amateurism rules prohibiting all forms of compensation, including licensing deals. But the judge also ruled against the plaintiffs’ claims against the profits the NCAA has already earned, taking away one avenue for recovery while still allowing plaintiffs to bring individual suits. Moreover, the ruling indirectly supports college athletes’ argument that they should be paid for their performance. The NCAA, however, is not throwing in the towel in its endeavor to preserve amateurism. According to NCAA President Mark Emmert, “There’s certainly no interest in turning college sports into [a] professional or semi-professional [sport].” Nonetheless, Emmert admits that the case, particularly the emphasis on the NCAA’s amateurism rules, “is a very important issue and principle for what is or is not a definition of college athletics.”
On one end of the debate, you have the college athletes, who contend that they were subjected to exploitation by the NCAA and have a right to the profit earned from such exploitation. On the other end, you have the athletic departments, who argue that college athletes already receive compensation for their performance in the form of a free education. Arguing in favor of the latter, the NCAA prides itself as an institution that safeguards the ideals of the student-athlete by promoting education first. Yet recent academic scandals have caused many to question the NCAA and its so-called dedication to prioritizing academics above athletics. How deep can this commitment be when some players are reading at elementary-school levels? Doesn’t this discount the athletic departments’ argument that athletes receive the value of a free education?
In a recently published student note, I discuss the vulnerability of student-athletes resulting from the commercialization of college sports. While college athletes may have the status of a celebrity, they certainly cannot live like one: any attempt to profit from one’s performance can lead to permanent ineligibility. Though narrowly focused on the emergence of sports wagering and its impact on the vulnerability of college athletes, my note calls for an internal institutional reform — one that redefines amateurism to adapt to the legal reality that O’Bannon will fundamentally change how the NCAA does business.
The case, however, and the student-athletes’ argument generally, is certainly not a slam dunk. The referenced note argues that the appropriate arena for this debate is within the institution itself rather than the courtroom. Do you agree? Which “team” are you rooting for?
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