It is easy to understand why NCAA president Mark Emmert has steadfastly maintained that student-athletes are not employees. After all, the ideal of amateurism is built on the principle that athletes should play for the love of sport rather than pay.

The problem, of course, is that athletes–just like coaches, trainers, athletic directors, and NCAA presidents–feel entitled to compensation. When was the last time you heard an athlete defend the amateur ideal? They generally observe NCAA rules because it is prudent, not because they buy into all the play-for-love-of-school-and-sports rhetoric.

It more or less follows that many players will break the rules if they don’t think they will get caught. This is the problem that college football has faced since the 1870s.

Take Yale, the team that dominated play during its formative years. They were guided by Walter Camp, who more than anyone else shaped the sport’s evolution. Camp sincerely believed that the purpose of football was moral training and advocated amateur ideals, for example, he served as a volunteer head coach for decades while running a clock factory. Nonetheless, he had to come to terms with the fact that some of his best players required additional motivation. In fact, his 27-year-old captain James Hogan (pictured above) enjoyed free tuition and a swanky suite, a handsome stipend, a ten-day paid vacation in Cuba, and, best of all, a monopoly on the sale of American Tobacco Company products on campus (referred to affectionately as Hogan’s Cigarettes by fellow students).

I suspect that Ohio State’s quarterback Terrelle Pryor would not have been trading equipment for tattoos if he could have secured market exclusivity for beer sales on the Columbus campus (Pryor’s Pilsners?)

During Hogan’s time, the fact that he received what was in effect an athletic scholarship was every bit as problematic as having a right to profit from tobacco sales. Coaches were supposed to recruit the players who happened to be on campus. not recruit them to come to campus. Thus, Harvard’s coach Bill Reid, who unlike Camp did accept a professional salary, kept card files on all 4,000 students.

The NCAA did not formally address the issue until after World War II. In 1948, they passed the Sanity Code, permitting the awarding of scholarships and jobs, but with the important caveat that the recipients had to demonstrate financial neediness. Finally, in 1956, they sanctioned the awarding of scholarships without regard to an athlete’s academic promise or economic hardships.

This was probably the sane thing to do given the rife corruption, but, make no mistake, this policy amounts to paying athletes. President Emmert can claim athletes are students not employees, but the fact of the matter is that a scholarship is a form of compensation for services rendered–which is fundamentally at odds with the ideal of amateurism. The International Olympic Committee was forced to address this problem by the early 90s, and sooner or later the NCAA will be forced to do the same.

In my view, the NCAA should allow athletes to be compensated by agents rather than by the schools.

The problem with the latter is that athletic departments, which are already usually operating in the red, would likely reallocate funds that support non-revenue generating sports. This would be a shame since the students who play these sports come closest to embodying the scholar-athlete ideal.

Allowing agents to represent athletes would have several benefits.

Agents could be regulated and monitored far more effectively. The NCAA and players’ unions in the major professional leagues could collaborate and establish standards of conduct. This would all but eliminate illegal payments and actually help players receive quality representation.

Coaches could consult with agents about their athlete’s best professional interests rather than worrying about them signing their stars. As it stands, agents have a huge incentive to encourage players to turn pro early because they are worried that players will choose to be represented to someone else a year or two later. Coaches may loathe the prospect of working with agents, but it would probably be easier than working with relatives or other hangers-on, and struggling to get a message to an agent lurking in the background.

Allowing agents a seat at the table would go a long way towards minimizing the sway of boosters, which would make coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents’ jobs a lot easier

Finally, some might fear that a university’s athletic community would be divided between the haves and have-nots, but this already occurs now because of illegal payments and the fact that some athletes are paid professionally to play one sport while maintaining college eligibility in another. Furthermore, the NCAA could also stipulate that any funds received that exceed a certain stipend would be put into a trust for the athlete. This might provide some of them a nest-egg in case their professional careers are derailed.

We can quibble over the details, but let’s be clear about the big picture. The present system is not working. There is too much money on the table and athletes are going to try to get their fair share. The NCAA can try to prevent them from taking funds under the table or it can compel everyone to put their cards on it.

The latter would be the right thing to do and in everyone’s best interest. However sad, the fact of the matter is that the spirit of amateurism is fundamentally at odds with an industry that generates oodles of money. That was true in 1905, and in 1956; it is true today; and it will remain a problem so long as the NCAA does not allow market forces to take their natural course.

~ Ken Pendleton