For the most part, American sports fans are in agreement on a pair of tangential ideas: (1) The connection between colleges and sports is unique and worth preserving, and (2) college athletes should be paid for their work in real U.S. currency.
These two ideas don’t mix easily, because amateurism — and the sneaky concept of the “student-athlete” — is the binding agent between school and sports. If players are simply employees of their athletic departments — most major-college athletic departments already exist as corporations distinct from the schools the represent — then there is no practical reason they even need to be enrolled at the schools they’re playing for, and the names on the front of their jerseys have about as much meaning as a corporate sponsorship. But you can’t just not pay people what they’re owed because you just don’t want to.
So how can we have both?
Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we already do.
As things are, and have been for many decades, college players do get paid. They get paid by their coaches, they get paid by boosters, and they get paid by shoe companies. The only real “problem” as far as I can see, is that every now and then the NCAA decides to take somebody down, like a drug cop doing a street rip. Nothing changes in the end, it just keeps everything on the black market.
This is not an ideal situation, as I’ve written a time or two. It puts people who would prefer to follow the rules in the terrible position of knowing they need to do something they are not allowed to do, and it often does more than a deserving amount of damage to the reputations of those who get caught.
So just stop catching them.
Before I go on, I need to observe a distinction between the kind of activity the FBI has uncovered and the kind of activity that, for example, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner has been accused of. The alleged behaviors the FBI is investigating are of interest to the feds because they are deceitful and fraudulent, the victims being teenage basketball players who agree to financial relationships under false pretenses. That can’t be allowed under any circumstance (and is a good argument for bringing this whole market out into the open). But a coach giving a player some shoes? Buying him a plane ticket? Tossing him $500? That’s not deceitful or shady. It’s just straight up compensation, or in some cases it’s simple generosity. In others it’s more like charity. It’s hard to imagine the person who knows this sort of thing is happening all over the place in college basketball, and is mad about it.
So just let it happen. The NCAA doesn’t even need to change any rules. It just has to … let some stuff slide. There is no need for the NCAA and the media to act like bored small-town cops pulling over people going 37 in a 35 and asking them what they think they’re doing endangering the whole town like that.
I am suggesting a little thing called, “discretion.” Or you might think of it as “judgment.” It’s the idea, for example, that there’s a good reason it’s against the law to be drunk in public, but you only get arrested for it if you’re drunk in public and you’re causing trouble. Or how a football referee could call holding on every play, but doesn’t. And why?
Because nobody wants him to.
There is nothing inherently moral about amateurism. Like virginity, the more you try to define it, the more gray areas you run into. And with even NCAA president Mark Emmert acknowledging that most fans don’t have confidence in the NCAA’s ability to police college sports, now may be a good time to pull back from the letter of the law and take a more holistic approach.
From the point of view of a fan, there isn’t very much wrong with college football or basketball right now. The games are entertaining, the competition seems fair, and the fans are deeply invested.
A lot of that is based on amateurism, but because of public sentiment and decisions in the courts, amateurism as we have known it appears to be in transition to something else. By loosening its grip on the amateurism concept and taking a less ideological approach to enforcement, the NCAA could help illuminate the path to whatever is next.