Certain kinds of progress are so overdue that when it finally happens, even in part, we’re just frustrated that it took so long. That’s certainly how many people felt when it took until 2017 to get a proper “Wonder Woman” movie. Those sentiments aside, we should still celebrate such progress. Overdue or not, it’s still progress.
For the “student” athletes who have been playing under the NCAA for over a century, progress has been harder to come by than most. I put “student” in quotes because in many cases, a “student athlete” is an empty term.
These are not student athletes in the literal sense of the word. These are athletes who go to certain schools to play a sport. They’re just called “students” so they can be compensated with a scholarship rather than actual money. Even if you value higher education, that scholarship rarely translates into a proper study.
See the 2014 UNC scandal that exposed just how little energy is put into the student part of student athlete. Keep in mind, that’s just the scandal that got exposed. There’s a good chance there are far more egregious cases that were better hidden.
I also have some personal experience with student athletes. I went to a college that had a nationally ranked football and basketball program. I met some of these student athletes. I can attest that they were not there for class. They were there to play their sport and that scholarship was the only thing they were getting in return.
I vividly recall classes in which basketball players slept in the back of a lecture hall.
I recall classes that had football players enrolled, but they rarely showed up for any classes.
This is not a fair system. These young athletes are generating millions for the school, but getting little in return beyond their scholarship. On top of that, the value of that scholarship is questionable when you consider some of the classes that athletes take.
That’s why I’m very much in favor of reforming this system, if not completely tossing it aside. It’s basically a quasi-plantation system that’s meant to compensate athletes as little as possible so that their efforts can generate the most amount of money for the schools and the NCAA. There have been past efforts to change this, but they rarely result in anything substantive.
Now, after a long string of legal battles, that might finally change. Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling that opens the door for NCAA athletes to seek greater compensation. It’s not a massive overhaul of the system, but it is a very overdue first step.
Faced with the prospect of reshaping college athletics, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow but potentially transformative ruling Monday in a case that pitted college athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
At issue in the case were NCAA rules that limit educational benefits for college players as part of their scholarships.
The athletes maintained that the NCAA has, in effect, been operating a system that is a classic restraint of competition — in short, a system that violates the nation’s antitrust laws. The NCAA countered that its rules are largely exempt from antitrust laws because they are aimed at preserving amateurism in college sports and because the rules “widen choices for consumers by distinguishing college sports from professional sports.”
On Monday, however, a unanimous court ruled that the NCAA rules are not reasonably necessary to distinguish between college and professional sports.
Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the NCAA “seeks immunity from the normal operation of the antitrust laws,” an immunity which Gorsuch said is justified neither by the antitrust law nor the previous opinions of the Supreme Court. Noting that big-time NCAA sports have turned into a multibillion-dollar business, Gorsuch said that a couple of sentences from a 1984 opinion did not declare then or now that there is some sort of immunity based on the concept of amateurism.
Without getting too heavy into the legalistic elements of this case, the court finally told the NCAA that they cannot operate as the sole arbiter of college supports. Doing so puts them at odds with anti-trust laws. Unless they change their practices, those laws will be applied and there’s nothing they can do to avoid them.
Again, it’s frustrating that it took this long for someone to sanction the NCAA in a meaningful way, but it still counts as progress. You don’t have to do much digging to see how the NCAA exploits student athletes. It’s such an open secret that South Park even did a parody of it.
There’s just no getting around it anymore. College sports are making billions off of branding and TV deals every year, but very little of that ever gets to the athletes. They’re the ones putting their bodies on the line to produce the spectacles. They’re more than deserving of fair compensation and a scholarship just isn’t enough.
I don’t claim to know how to structure a better system. Plenty of people far smarter than me have offered some ideas. We won’t know which actually work until we start trying. Until this ruling, the NCAA never had a reason to try. Now, they have to do something.
I sincerely hope that whatever they do benefits these young athletes. Having known more than a few, I can attest that these are wonderful, talented young people. They have a rare gift that allows them to compete at a high level. They should be able to get compensated for that gift in a manner that helps them, as well as their families.
It may take time and any subsequent reforms will also be frustratingly overdue. That still counts as progress and that’s something that college sports desperately needs.