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The myth of amateurism in college sports

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

There is perhaps no greater time in sports than March Madness. For multiple weekends in March – and part of April – college basketball rules the sports landscape, commanding attention unlike any other sport is capable of. Hardcore fans, casual fans and even non-sports fans get sucked into the madness that plays out on the court each year.

This year, Zion Williamson and Duke commanded much of the attention while Carsen Edwards lit the tournament ablaze with remarkable scoring performance after remarkable scoring performance. Not surprisingly, the tournament is bringing in record numbers.

Michigan State’s win over Duke in the Elite Eight drew the largest viewer audience for its timeslot in 14 years. The four Elite Eight games in total, all of which were incredible contests, ranked the second-highest for second-weekend games since 2011.

The tournament as a whole, heading into the Final Four, is up eight percent this year in viewership compared to last year. And that figure is simply building upon what is already a TV giant during March.

In the same vein, the NCAA is bringing in money hand and foot. Last year, they announced that they had cleared one billion in revenue for the 2016-17 school, the first time in history they had surpassed the one billion dollar threshold. And those figures came before the arrival of Williamson, who quickly established him and the Duke Blue Devils as must-watch television.

Add all this up and it begs the question that only continues to be asked louder and louder: why aren’t these athletes paid?

Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, the idea of amateurism was fine because athletes were being fairly compensated with their education. At the time, the NCAA wasn’t the money-printing machine it’s morphed into now.

But somewhere around the time Indiana made its last meaningful run in the tournament in 2002, the NCAA began morphing into something much bigger. In 2018 alone, the NCAA made just over $844 million in TV and marketing fees. That figure has continually risen from 2012 and shows no sign of slowing down.

This year, for example, Williamson and Duke were set for one of the most-anticipated games in college basketball history at home in front of former president Barack Obama in a game that almost certainly would have broken viewership ratings against North Carolina on Feb. 20. Instead of seeing a high-profile match-up, worst fears were nearly realized as Williamson went down with a knee injury 30 seconds into the game, blowing out the sole of his shoe as only Williamson could manage. After missing a handful of games, Williamson would return and look none the weaker.

But that moment proved both how quickly everything can change for these athletes and how archaic the idea of amateurism in today’s society is. ESPN and the NCAA both showed highlights of Williamson and Duke at every possible step along the way this season and what does Williamson have to show for it? A scholarship still holds some value, but it does not hold the same value it did 30 or 40 years ago.

As recent proceedings in court cases have shown us, players are still being paid by shoe companies. Those transactions take place under the table and include anything from straight cash to cars or houses or jobs for parents. It’s an unnecessary back-alley tactic necessitated by an outdated system that’s long for the changing. As the NCAA continues to increase its revenue year by year, the athletes they profit on continue to receive the same “payment.”

The solution isn’t simple. Does every college athlete deserve to be paid equal amounts? Should a football or basketball player make the same money as a field hockey player, despite the former athletes drawing more attention and notoriety to the college?

One solution that is simple and should be instituted immediately is allowing college athletes to profit off their own likeness. If a sports memorabilia shop wants to pay an athlete $500 to autograph a basketball, why shouldn’t the athlete be allowed to prosper? If an auto dealership wants the star quarterback to come out for a day and is willing to fork over $1,000 for the appearance, why should the NCAA step in?

It’d be a small step in the right direction and would open the door to a fairer future, one that sees all sides prosper rather than one side doing the bulk of the profiting at the expense of the other side.

And it’d go a long way in ending the outdated definition of amateurism in present-day college sports.

To contact Rude, send an email to sports@wabashplaindealer.com