It was on this month, 98 years ago, that Amherst College President Alexander Meiklejohn called for the superpowers of college football, which at that time were Yale, Harvard and Princeton, to call a conference that would reorganize college athletics by ending the practice of paying coaches.
He lambasted the “system” of college football.
It’s worth keeping this history in mind as we consider the news this week that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of a decision that would keep the NCAA from applying stringent limits on how college athletes might be compensated.
If Meiklejohn was wrong about one thing, it was that we would not allow college players to be paid, but it would take nearly a century for that idea to unfold into the mainstream. It’s still unfolding, painfully. In the end, it could end up dramatically changing everything about college sports.
The current case goes to the heart of the compensation issue. Colleges make money from the performances of student athletes without allowing them to capitalize on their own fame. Former West Virginia University running back Shawne Alston sued the NCAA, as did four other Division I athletes. They claim the NCAA is violating antitrust laws by limiting their compensation.
So far, courts have agreed with them, to a point. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the players could receive compensation for educational materials, for eventual graduate school or vocational school expenses and internships, but not for non-educational things. No salaries, in other words.
One judge called the NCAA a “cartel” that earns billions from the labor of the athletes.
That sounds similar to what the late Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr., wrote in an essay adapted from his autobiography and published last month by the New York Times. He said some college teams already pay players, and the NCAA ignores it.
“The whole system is filthy with it, well beyond the few schools publicly named by the NCAA,” he said. “Since the NCAA won’t hold everyone accountable, paying players might as well be legal.”
But then, Thompson admitted, paying players would raise a slew of difficult questions. How would you make it fair? How would you keep the truly great players from demanding far more than the rest? How would female athletes be treated fairly under Title IX? Could players be fired for not performing well? What would be a school’s responsibility to provide an education to paid players?
Thankfully, those questions remain for the future, for now.
But even education-related expenses could get out of hand as schools compete with handouts to recruit the best players.
Going back to the 1920s, it’s easy to see how President Meiklejohn’s concerns sounded old-fashioned, even in his day, as if he were standing on the shore, yelling at the tide to stay away.
1922 was the year Ohio State built a 71,138-seat stadium it still uses today. The Yale Bowl already was eight years old, and it could seat more than 70,000. Even at only a few cents a ticket, these schools were gaining clear advantages over their lesser rivals.
At the same time, Europe was developing a club system for sports that, to this day, remains completely separate from the complications of schools and academics. But it would be silly to argue for the United States to adopt that kind of system now. College-based athletics is tightly woven into the nation’s cultural fabric, even impacting the self-esteem of alumni and fans.
But preserving the current system will require a delicate balance of limited compensation to athletes with a renewed commitment by the NCAA to go after the gross violators Thompson alleges are out there.
Keeping compensation tied closely to educational expenses is one way to at least keep maintain a legitimate connection between sports and schools. However, it won’t come close to ending the tug-of-war between the two that has gone one for more than a century now.