More than 30 years after the Olympic Games abandoned its fussy attachment to amateurism, the Illinois General Assembly advanced a proposal to force the state’s colleges and universities to do the same.
It was almost immediately overtaken by the ground-shaking news that the NCAA would now support a similar move.
The Student Athlete Endorsement Act (HB 3904), sponsored by Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, would allow intercollegiate competitors to hire agents and make money off the commercial use of their own names, images or likenesses, just like the pros do. It passed out of the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee on Tuesday morning.
And in a surprise development shortly thereafter, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which had spoken out against the idea behind the bill, announced that its board of governors had voted unanimously to get behind it.
At some schools, college athletics is a huge business, and the stars in the big-time sports deserve a far larger cut of the box-office, merchandising and broadcast fees than they now get through their scholarships and stipends.
But even at schools where athletics is a loss leader, and in sports that don’t draw many paying customers, competitors ought to be able to take advantage of whatever market value their skills might have, just as student-nonathletes do.
The California General Assembly unanimously passed a nearly identical proposal last month, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into a law that will take effect in 2023. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his support for the idea Sunday in an interview with the Tribune’s Rick Pearson on WGN-AM.
“The name and image and likeness of student-athletes belongs to them, and they should have the right to earn dollars based on that,” Pritzker said.
Earlier, the NCAA had raised objections to the California law on the grounds that it will “erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics.”
We all know the distinction: Professional athletes get paid for the time they put in practicing and for the value of their services in generating income for third parties. College athletes don’t.
But why is it critical? Why did the NCAA, like the pre-1988 Olympic movement, fetishize amateurism?
The very concept that there’s something special and pure about amateur sports “was an invention of the Victorian upper and middle classes,” wrote Amherst College American Studies professor Allen Guttmann in his 1992 book “The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games.” “Its freely acknowledged purpose was to exclude the ‘lower orders’ from the play of the leisure class … [and] through most of the 20th century, amateurism was defended with the argument that fair play and good sportsmanship are possible only when sports are an athlete’s avocation, never his or her vocation.”
Guttmann noted, “the avocation-vocation distinction seemed madly irrational to almost everyone except those whose power and privilege enabled them to define reality.”
The bias against the poor — those in the “lower orders” who couldn’t afford the luxury of training and competing without compensation — was obvious and arguably deliberate. And today we see this bias played out when star college athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds barely scrape by while their coaches pull in seven-figure salaries and their schools rake in tens of millions of dollars based on their athletes’ talents.
The proposal in Springfield and Tuesday’s resolution from the NCAA would not allow schools to pay athletes directly — though I can think of no principled argument against that. They simply allow student-athletes to take advantage of their talents on the free market while still representing their schools in competition, as long as their endorsement deals don’t conflict with deals already struck by the schools.
The NCAA’s about-face may have been inspired by a looming crisis. At first it announced that if California’s law went into effect, the state’s 58 NCAA-affiliated colleges and universities would not be eligible for postseason tournament play because they would have unfair recruiting advantages over schools in states that could not lure athletes with the promise of endorsement money.
But the dam is starting to break elsewhere, and not just in Illinois, with its 40 NCAA-affiliated colleges and universities. Sports Illustrated reported earlier this month that legislators in eight other states — including New York (103 NCAA schools) and Pennsylvania (97 NCAA schools) — have introduced or are planning to introduce nearly identical proposals, leaving open the prospect of numerous prominent schools coast to coast being blocked from tournament play.
There was also news that Republican U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, of Ohio, will soon introduce a bill to impose a federal ban on colleges blocking student-athletes from cutting deals with sponsors.
Illinois HB 3904, which will now be considered by the full House, has two Republican co-sponsors. But House leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, announced his opposition to the idea on Pearson’s program, “The Sunday Spin,” for the weakest of reasons: “I still believe in the concept, even though it seems to be waning, of the scholar-athlete,” he said.
I do too. But scholar-athletes making outside money off their talents is no more incongruous, contradictory or corrupting than scholar-musicians (like my younger son) making outside money off their talents.
There’s a risk, I suppose, that eager boosters will
offer lucrative but essentially meaningless “endorsement” deals to lure top athletes and that schools in major media markets will gain an advantage over schools in remote areas. Coaches and athletic departments may lose sponsorship deals to individual players.
Yes, but the unfairness in the current system has had its negative consequences over the years too.
Everyone else is cashing in on college sports. It’s time — well past time — to let the players do the same.
Eric Zorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.