There Is No Reason “Amateur” Athletes Shouldn’t Be Paid

The ruling allowing Northwestern football players to organize gives athletes a chance to help decide their compensation. It should be applauded.

Kentucky's Marcus Lee, left, and Michigan's Jordan Morgan go after a rebound during the first half of an NCAA Midwest Regional final college basketball tournament game Sunday, March 30, 2014, in Indianapolis. Photo | Michael Conroy, Associated Press

Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, left, and Michigan’s Jordan Morgan go after a rebound during the first half of an NCAA Midwest Regional final college basketball tournament game Sunday, March 30, 2014, in Indianapolis. Photo | Michael Conroy, Associated Press

Like Kurtis Blow, basketball is my favorite sport. I, too, like the way they dribble up and down the court.

Basketball’s a sport I enjoy at every level. I love the NFL, but I don’t care much for college football. Minor league baseball is even more boring than major league baseball. But I could watch pretty much every level of basketball: High-level NBA games on TV. Big 5 games at the Palestra. High school games in crumbling Philly gyms. Pick-up games on 10th Street. Little kid games at halftime of the Sixers. Everything is great!

While I prefer the pro game, NCAA basketball has a certain quality to it I enjoy. Because there are more teams and fewer talented players, the teams play varying styles. This season in Philadelphia you could watch Drexel’s offense, which — minus starters Damion Lee and Kazembe Abif — couldn’t shoot a lick. But it never turned the ball over, played incredible defense and managed to stay in games despite the injuries. Just up I-76, Saint Joseph’s turned the ball over a ton and couldn’t get any offensive rebounds. But the Hawks shot fairly well, didn’t allow many layups on defense and got into the NCAA tournament on the strength of it. There are 351 teams to analyze. That’s so much basketball! If you’re a junkie, college hoops offers you such variety — all at a decent level of play.

But watching the NCAA tournament feels uneasy. You begin to start to refer to the sponsors as the “NCAA’s corporate champions.” You start to realize just how much money this makes — a 14-year, $10.8 billion TV deal was signed in 2010, and that’s only part of it — and you wonder why the students don’t get a cut.

I don’t know if college athletes should be paid. But I do know this: They should have the chance to decide. There is nothing unique about sports that should keep a college student from being paid. I was paid (not much) to work as an editor at my college newspaper. Amateurism is a sham, created by English upper and middle classes in the 19th century to prevent the working class from competing in what was previously rich people’s recreational pastimes. There is nothing inherently wrong with a college student being paid to play sports. The NCAA tournament is not more “pure” than the NBA playoffs.

Many college athletes are, of course, paid in the form of a scholarship to attend the school. Perhaps this is enough! A college education is a valuable thing to get for free. But I think athletes should get to decide. As Taylor Branch wrote in “The Shame of College Sports” for The Atlantic, athletes have no representation in the NCAA. Even the term “student-athlete” is a legal fiction, invented by the NCAA’s lawyers to avoid paying workman’s compensation to injured athletes.

Stories abound of players denied eligibility for minor infractions. Athletes can’t hold outside jobs. They can’t even sleep on friends’ couches when they travel — it could be ruled an improper benefit. Their eligibility can be affected if they consider leaving college and a team they chose not to sign with turns them in.

Perhaps athletes are OK with these restrictions. But currently they don’t have a chance to weigh in. The NCAA does not allow athletes a vote, or even really discuss the rules with them. That’s why I think the ruling allowing the Northwestern football team to unionize is such a great step forward: It will finally allow athletes a chance to help shape college sports for themselves.

Students used to organize sports themselves, like when Penn and Yale played the first-ever 5-on-5 collegiate basketball game in 1897. Since the NCAA took over organization of most collegiate sports, they’ve denied students a chance to help shape the rules themselves. The metaphor Branch uses is colonialism: Well-meaning paternalists deciding for others what’s best for them.

You may not think college athletes should be able to unionize. You may not think they should be paid. (The Northwestern athletes aren’t asking for money currently, but better medical coverage and concussion testing, and four-year scholarships.) But it doesn’t matter what you, or I, think. Athletes should be able to negotiate with schools for their services. The unionization push is finally going to give them a chance. College athletes are adults. They ought to have a chance to help decide the rules for themselves.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.