Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: The evolution of college sports, amateur players

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Article 12 of the NCAA Division I Manual states, “Only an amateur student-athlete is eligible for intercollegiate athletics.” Amateur typically means one who lacks the skill of a professional. In sports, amateur means accepting payment for playing sports only according to the restrictions set by a sport’s regulatory body.

The definition of an amateur has dramatically changed since the 1800s. Before the American Civil War, American universities imported the English model of amateur athletics. Amateurs played for the love of the sport. Amateur was typically defined by what was not allowed, especially excluding people who were paid, such as no paid athletes even in another sport, which excluded commoners; no scholarships; no paid coaches and staff; no paid admission to sporting events; not spending large sums for stadiums and other facilities; and limits on transferring between schools. Interestingly, schools did not limit theater majors’ ability to be paid for performances, debaters’ ability to be paid for debates, or art majors’ ability to sell their art.

By the 1906 founding of the NCAA, the definition of amateur had changed. Americans focused more on winning rather than the love of the game. They also focused more on equal opportunity. Low-income students could, by their initiative, participate and compete. The new rules allowed the land-grant schools and other schools to compete. Schools found they could not compete unless they paid for professional-quality coaching. To attract the best athletes, they offered scholarships, training tables and other forms of compensation. Schools also started charging admission to events and built large sports facilities.

The ethics of amateurism now mainly applies to restrictions on paying athletes and regulations on athletic recruiting, housing and training. However, the NCAA has recently faced court cases alleging that many of these restrictions are illegal under antitrust law and artificially depress athletes’ compensation. Court cases also examined whether athletes are the equivalent of employees, where a person is an employee rather than an independent contractor when the employer directs the employee in the details of how the work is performed.

According to Ronald Smith in his book “The Myth of the Amateur,” schools operate professional teams where the athletes are labeled amateurs, but the real difference is that the athletes are supposed to be students. College sports is big business. In 2022, the top 25 NCAA universities reported sports revenue of $4.41 billion, expenses of $3.95 billion, and apparent profits of $467 million.•

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Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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