On Jan. 6, the NCAA announced that it would begin to pay families of athletes competing in the Final Four semifinal basketball games up to $3,000 and families of athletes who made the championship game up to $4,000. The money will go to hotel, travel and meal expenses for the families, allowing them to celebrate and support their loved ones.
This announcement comes after years of mounting pressure from critics for the NCAA to compensate student athletes for their efforts on the field. Highly successful football and basketball programs bring in millions of dollars in revenue and donations to their parent institutions and to the NCAA. The increasing professionalization of collegiate athletics has made a mockery of the term “student athlete.” Scandals like the fake classes at UNC-Chapel Hill have highlighted how even well-respected institutions are sacrificing academic integrity in pursuit of athletic glory (and the money it brings).
As a result, there is mounting pressure for schools to appropriately compensate their athletes. Players on the Northwestern University football team even voted on whether to form a union last spring, although the outcome of the vote is not yet known. The NCAA has long opposed these calls, insisting on the importance of maintaining the amateur status of the student athletes. To the NCAA’s critics, amateurism is a shibboleth, held on to as a convenient facade to secure the income generated by collegiate athletics.
I am by no means an expert on college sports — far from it, in fact — and I do not know how to properly resolve the complicated web of competing interests at the heart of this problem. However, I do feel that my experience as an athlete and a student at Yale gives me the perspective to comment on one aspect of this debate: the importance of amateurism.
Amateurism is somewhat out of fashion in our society, but it is fundamental to what makes a college athletic career rewarding. This is because sports, by and large, are not about entertainment. The vast majority of student athletes never appear on the television and no one but their family and close friends pay much attention to their effort. If they go to watch a game, it is often just as much out of a sense of obligation as genuine enthusiasm.
Nor is it about money. I am certain that I have not generated a dollar for Yale in my time here and that is true for a large majority of athletes in schools across the country. Rather, the primary benefit of athletics lies in the personal development it engenders in the participants and that is then brought to the larger community.
Amateurism ingrains the ability to work very hard to achieve a distant goal with no expectation of external recompense. It gives us the ability to think in terms beyond material rewards to a higher self-justification. It pushes us to meld into a team and to act without ego. In a world where the value of things is boiled down to dollars and cents, amateurism reaffirms that some things cannot be so reduced. The beauty of athletic striving cannot be put merely in terms of television deals or ticket sales.
It is a shame, then, when amateurism is reduced on our college campuses. Outside of a select few schools such as Yale, athletes of all types are essentially cordoned off from the rest of the school. They have their own cafeterias, tutors and culture. Even the scholarship system, which directly links performance on the field to financial security, reduces the power of amateurism as an ennobling force.
Increasingly, non-revenue generating sports are being squeezed out so that more money can be devoted to football and basketball. For many schools, sports are no longer an end in themselves but rather a tool for money. And in that world, it becomes incredibly hard to justify having a track or swimming team. By turning our student athletes into professionals in everything but name, we lose out on what make college athletics so special.
Of course, amateurism is also a luxury. If a person could be making money much-needed by themselves and their family, it would be absurd and cruel to say that some abstract ideal should prevent that from happening. It is an unfortunate artifact of history that, unlike in Europe, the development of professional athletes in this country is outsourced to our colleges.
Some sort of arrangement must be reached to allow for de facto professional athletes to be paid for their work. But at the same time, we should not simply declare amateurism dead. In doing so, we would be killing a proud tradition that has meaningfully improved the lives of countless people, myself included. I do not know if the NCAA actually cares about amateurism or not, but I do, and so should anyone who cares about the true value of college sports.
Isa Qasim is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.