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Doug Robinson: The walls are closing in on the NCAA

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 6:25 p.m. MDT

In his aptly titled book, “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA,” author Taylor Branch writes that Walter Byers, director of the NCAA from 1951 to 1987, created the term in the 1950s in response to a lawsuit filed by the widow of a football player who died in Colorado from a head injury. She sued for death benefits through workman’s compensation. The NCAA contended he was a student, not an employee, and a football scholarship did not change that status. Football was merely an extracurricular activity, not a business; therefore, he didn't merit compensation. Byers coined the “student-athlete” term to bolster this argument. The term stuck forever and the courts ruled for the NCAA.

As Branch wrote so well, “Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority — indeed, much of the justification for its existence — is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the student-athlete. The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of 'student-athlete' lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its 'fight against workers’ compensation insurance claims for injured football players.'”

In what would now be seen as ironic, if not ludicrous, the Colorado Supreme Court wrote in 1957, “It is significant that the college did not receive a direct benefit from the activities, since the college was not in the football business and received no benefit from the field of recreation. In fact, the state-conducted institution, supported by taxpayers, could not as a matter of business enter into the maintenance of a football team for the purpose of making a profit directly or indirectly out of the taxpayers’ money.”

Now the NCAA and its member schools are in the football business to the tune of billions of dollars, using virtually free labor by promoting amateurism, which is more, self-justifying nonsense.

Amateurism has little basis in idealism. As Olympic author and historian David Wallechinsky describes it, amateurism developed in 19th-century England as a way for the aristocracy to avoid competing against the working class. The aristocracy had the means to devote time to training; the working class had to have jobs to earn a living, often working six days a week, so the only way they could compete in or train for sports was through prize money or sponsorship. The upper class pushed for amateurism as a means of segregation, but hid it behind idealism. In 2006, former Harvard dean Harry R. Lewis wrote in the Harvard Crimson, “The original British rules of 1868 had the now-familiar prohibitions against competing for pay or prize money. But just in case some member of the lower classes might become athletically expert while avoiding such rewards, the rules also bluntly excluded any “mechanic, artisan or labourer.”

It was elitism at its worst and yet somehow it persisted for a century. It made its way to America into golf, tennis and track and the old AAU, which ruined more sporting careers than knee injuries. It also became entrenched in the NCAA, which promotes amateurism with its “student-athlete” model so it can thrive in the big business of college football and basketball. That was hardly the purpose of higher education 60 years ago. College football and basketball are big business now and, like the AAU and IOC before them, the NCAA is facing big changes in how it uses athletes.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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