Idealists will mourn last week’s NCAA decision to allow the wealthiest college conferences to act, in essence, more like professional sports programs, as the death of the amateur ideal in athletics. Realists know that the amateur ideal died a long time ago at those colleges and conferences and there is no point in pretending otherwise. That ideal, however, lives on and thrives elsewhere, including in the county.
The NCAA’s plan enables five prominent conferences -- the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, the Pacific-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12 -- and their 65 schools to, among other provisions, raise the value of scholarships (essentially salaries) and allow players to consult with agents. The plan must still pass muster with the NCAA’s members universities but with the major powers behind it, the plan is unlikely to be rejected.
Those five conferences contain some excellent academic institutions, Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt among them, but many of the colleges are little more than football- and basketball factories, serving as glorified farm teams for the NFL and NBA. The other Division 1 schools, like UMass., still playing by the old rules may find it marginally more difficult to compete with these schools but they are barely competitive with them now. The NCAA is now acknowledging the obvious.
The NCAA’s hand was forced by high-profile lawsuits in which former players have claimed that the organization and its members profited from selling their images on T-shirts and in video games without reimbursing them, and by the nascent unionization effort by football players at Northwestern. Anecdotes about players struggling to eat on the modest money doled out for food while shirts with their names and images on them are sold for a large profit by the NCAA and its schools have severely damaged their image. The NCAA is obviously hoping to avoid lawsuits and unions while giving itself a needed public relations boost.
Local fans disgusted that big-time college sports are becoming bigger and more money-oriented can take solace that MCLA and Williams, playing at the Division 3 level, are keeping the amateur ideal alive. The play is entertaining and competitive, and money doesn’t talk.