College Athletes Are On The Cusp Of (Some) Justice

College athletics center on the myth of amateurism, but student athletes should be compensated for their labor, full stop.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

College athletics center on the myth of amateurism: the idea that what makes the competition so “pure” is that there’s no money involved — that everyone on the field or court is participating for the love of the game and the love of their higher education institution, which they obviously attend for no other reason than the stellar education they receive while working full-time for the athletics department.

In 2021, that’s stating the obvious. Being obvious doesn’t make that concept any less absurd, though. At its core, this is the belief that motivates anyone who doesn’t think college athletes should be paid — an imagined world where money doesn’t exist and everything is fair. That’s actually the beautiful part of it, that the logical conclusions of most arguments for amateurism wind up somewhere in the vicinity of communism. Unfortunately in practice, amateurism manifests in a monopoly designed to consolidate profits made by exploiting mostly Black athletes and prop up America’s flailing higher education system via enormous TV contracts.

As much as the proponents of this myth would have us believe that paying athletes would mean the disintegration of some long-beloved idol and essentially the destruction of society as we know it, amateurism is as much a calculated construction of lawmakers and big business as the name, image and licensing bills that are currently being rushed through state legislatures. It hasn’t always been this way, and won’t be this way for much longer — and that’s a good thing.

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All images courtesy NCAA.com

Six states have already passed such laws, and 29 more are considering them, acting in the face of lagging national legislation and a reluctant NCAA. The race to pass legislation that would allow college athletes to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses — in other words, the same way any non-athlete college student can — has taken off for the same reason every sensible person has argued that the athletes should be paid.

States where athletes have the opportunity to “build their brand,” to use modern parlance, will have a recruiting advantage. Their skills are so valuable on the open market that even without the incentive of payment — which most top-tier recruits receive under the table anyway — the possibility of being able to capitalize on them with jersey and merch sales (and video game avatars) is enticing enough to compel an athlete to pick one school over another.

That these bills have been so easily passed in a moment when the schism in the center of American politics is so wide shows how unfair and pointless this restriction has been the entire time. Some of the bills explicitly reiterate that athletes should not be compensated by universities for playing, but others make provisions for universities to create wage funds or trusts for their players. Ultimately it seems like player wages are just one more domino likely to fall — although it might take a few years, thanks to the enormous sums the NCAA and its conferences are paying lobbyists to ward off such a change.

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Florida will likely become the first state where athletes will be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness; their NIL bill goes into effect July 1. The fact that such progress, as small as it is, isn’t falling along party lines or red and blue states is evidence of how pointless this debate has been all along. Florida is leading the charge because they have many massive, powerful college athletics departments that those colleges want to fill with the best athletes from around the country — exactly the way every other industry in and out of sports works.

It’s not partisan, yet. But a little bit of power and leverage for a category of athletes who have, for so long, been without recourse, is the start of something. Getting college athletes paid and unionized like the pros they are will likely be a tougher battle, one more likely to fall along party lines. Hopefully NIL bills, though, will prove to the athletes themselves just how much power they actually have.

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