Don't Look Now, but the Big 12 is Budging on Amateurism

Don't Look Now, but the Big 12 is Budging on Amateurism

College Athletics

Don't Look Now, but the Big 12 is Budging on Amateurism

If Bob Bowlsby isn’t careful, he’s going to start making some sense.

Speaking to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics on Monday, the Big 12 commissioner said plainly and with fortitude that he didn’t think college athletes could rightly be considered amateurs, to his understanding of the term.

Now, nobody make him director of the players union just yet, because Bowlsby wasn’t done talking. He said didn’t think college athletes ought to be considered professionals, either, exactly. To put a point on it, Bowlsby thinks our present terminology is insufficient to accurately and fairly express the relationship between colleges and college athletes in America.

“I don’t think they’re amateurs,” Bowlsby said. “They’re college athletes.”

That doesn’t have much practical meaning, but in the battle of semantics that is the amateurism debate, this is a concession of some significance coming from a person of influence on the side with all the money. Maintaining the idea that college athletes are amateurs has been critical to getting around the labor laws that would otherwise compel universities to pay athletes for their work. The term “student-athlete” was created for this purpose, and so far has served that purpose well.

But that idea is under attack in the culture and in the courts. It seems only a matter of time before the era of unpaid amateur college athletes — a situation unique to America in every aspect — gives way to something else.

But what, exactly?

In an interview after his appearance before the panel, Bowlsby discussed in general terms how he defines professionals and amateurs, as well as the prospect of schools being able to do more for athletes’ health care across a broad spectrum, possibly including so-called loss-of-value protection for athletes who are eligible to turn pro but stay in school and then suffer an injury that affects when they get selected in a pro draft. These are issues that Bowlsby said athletics administrators are “spending a lot of time talking about” and need to figure out.

That’s … something.

But it’s a good deal short of what anybody would recognize as an employer-employee relationship, one in which dollars are exchanged directly for work, not converted into Scholarship Buccz good only at the Registrars office and the campus bookstore, or pumped into some convoluted insurance policy. If you can’t buy a sandwich with it, it isn’t money.

It’s clear NCAA athletes (especially the really good ones) are not being fairly compensated for their work and likenesses under the status quo. But it is also the case that any legislative body governing college athletics has one of two options as regards this issue:

  1. Turn the whole thing loose to the market. This is the only truly fair option, but it may have the side effect of devaluing the product partially or completely.
  2. Enforce a set of rules that is necessarily arbitrary. It’s an unfair option that still shortchanges the most valuable contributors, but nonetheless is (theoretically) more likely to preserve the product’s existing ability to generate wealth.

Philosophically, I favor option No. 1. But as a practical matter I expect the final compromise on this issue will be oblong and unwieldy, in the American tradition. I imagine it will have followed a long and contentious road of reform not unlike what happened to the college football postseason over the last three decades, and will have come out the other side as something that is neither totally fair nor perfectly executed, but (more or less) satisfies the tastes of its time.

It won’t be thunderous swings of the gavel that get players paid (though those have helped), it will be a hundred tiny concessions from guys like Bob Bowlsby, who as a schoolboy during the Eisenhower years sold pop at Iowa football games.

I’m sure it was only a coincidence, but Bowlsby made his remarks a day after a weekend in which the Big 12 sent just 14 players to the NFL Draft, getting clocked by the SEC (53), ACC (43), Pac-12 (36), Big Ten (35), and the AAC (15). In terms of players drafted per school, the Big 12 (1.4) was still well below the other major conferences, right there again next to the AAC (1.3). The Big 12 has been on this trend for three years now, and in the three years since the College Football Playoff started, the Big 12 has sent just one team (No. 4 seed Oklahoma, which got blown out by Clemson in the 2015 semifinal round). This doesn’t even mention the league’s discordant and unsuccessful tries at expansion during that time.

Don’t you kinda get the feeling Texas and Oklahoma would love to be able to sign a bunch of free agents right now? And if you were the commissioner of their league, wouldn’t you want that too?

I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea. Bowlsby ultimately doesn’t have much any real individual power to change anything. But there is a concession being made, here, and — coincidence or not — it can’t be considered too much of a surprise that it’s coming from the Big 12.

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