Ocober 21, 2013
Andrei S. Markovits
The controversy about paying student athletes has one sacrosanct origin: amateurism. Derived from the Latin amator and the Old French amateur as in “lover of”, the ism part hails from the notion of mens sana in corpore sano - a healthy mind in a healthy body. Amateurism bespoke a disdain for any kind of striving for excellence, let alone the salience of winning. The only thing that mattered was participation. Historically, amateur- ism was a highly successful gate-keeping mech- anism for the upper classes to exclude the lower classes as unwanted competitors on all playing fields. In its disdain for any kind of monetary re- muneration, amateurism fortified in a world that functioned based on the feudal notion that things created by and for money were morally inferior to things created solely for the sake of creation. This included sports as well. Amateur sports were seen as morally superior to the nascent professional sports which were the creation of the burgeoning working classes whose members simply did not have the leisure to play for free.
The undergraduate part of American universities hails directly from its British progen- itors, Oxford and Cambridge. But unlike these universities, whose product needed no particular distinction in the then still sparse world of British higher education, their American imitators need- ed to distinguish themselves. Here, the need for differentiation among a greater number became a necessity. Sports came to play a crucial role in these institutions’ identity creation and differenti- ation. From the middle of the 19th century, sports mattered to American colleges for their image and their product in an increasingly competitive high- er-education environment. Sports became crucial the way the quality of the law school or the eco- nomics department did. Thus, winning came to matter, which meant that items such as financial favors to sub-freshmen recruits; constant viola- tions of eligibility requirements; bowing to alumni interests and outside boosters; payments of pro- fessional coaches well beyond faculty salaries; and sports budgets far exceeding those of large depart- ments have remained with us to this day. By the late 19th century, universities became professional in every aspect of the term. However, student athletes, the very ones whose skill and labor had produced the ultimate value in this entire enterprise, remain restricted to ama- teur status.
The solution to this historical conun- drum seems to be quite simple: Let the market pay those student athletes who it deems valuable! If the market finds a football quarterback more desireable than a defensive end, let them be rewarded accordingly. Universities should not pay any of them one cent since starting to pay any student-athletes would inevitably lead to a slippery slope of inequality that no university should advocate or represent: a star quarterback might be worth a lot more to a university than a squash player, but this difference in value cannot be borne by the university. It can – and should – be determined by market forces outside the walls of academia. I see nothing wrong with Ohio State students selling their jerseys for tattoos or cash or both.
American college sports constitute a hy- brid: on the one hand they represent the non-mar- ket character of universities, in which the amateur notion of sports for sports’ sake continues unabat- ed. This is a wonderful tradition that deserves our full support. But there is the other hand, in which the few revenue sports reach beyond the confines of the university’s educational mission and iden- tity and embody the closest thing that American sports have to European soccer’s club structure. After all, unlike American professional franchises, college teams, like European clubs, do not move from place to place. And this professional aspect of college sports, that has much less to do with its affinity to a university and much more to its club- like character, needs to be fully recognized.
The brand “Michigan” requires excel- lence in its academic endeavors. However, it also exacts the same quality in its sports. The excellence of the University’s law school is as crucial to the University’s identity as that of its football team. This renders the product “Michigan” distinct from Swarthmore, the University of Chicago, and the Ivies. Michigan’s excellence in football depends on a myriad of entities, all of which share only one thing: they are professionalized and so involve monetary payment on an official basis. The only exception to this is the players, those arguably pro- viding the most important ingredient for the Uni- versity’s identity of excellence. It is high time that we end this reality-distorting anachronism.
Andrei S. Markovitz is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In many ways, Denard Robinson’s first snap for the Michigan football team in 2009 was emblematic of the rest of his collegiate career. Robinson bobbled the ball and scrambled to his right to avoid a defender, then paused for a brief moment to look downfield before accelerating like a bullet. Touchdown, Wolverines, and the birth of a new legend in Ann Arbor.
Robinson spent four wildly successful years at Michigan as he became both the face of the Michigan football program and, in a sense, the face of the University. His likeness was featured in video games, the jersey bearing his number was on every fan’s holiday wish list and his talent sparked hope for a program that was in the midst of a streak of uncharacteristically poor performances. He devoted four years to Michigan and the Uni- versity reaped innumerable benefits. For all of that, he didn’t receive a single dime in compensa- tion.
Did Robinson deserve a cut of the profits from the University? Perhaps. But in practice, it would be entirely unfeasible to pay him.
Remember for a moment that Robin- son was a so-called student-athlete, theoretical- ly attending school to succeed in the classroom as much as he excelled on the football field. And he did, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from a four-year institution.
Regardless of the heavily subsidized edu- cation that many student-athletes receive, the cur- rent system of collegiate sports does not support paying them. Give Robinson a stipend, and you would have to write the third-string center a check too. And Athletic Departments simply cannot af- ford to do so.
The logical step is, of course, to pay the athletes who make the money. Why not pay just the Denard Robinsons and the Trey Burkes and the Jacob Troubas since they’re the ones that help make Michigan’s Athletic Department profitable?
It’s a valid question, but one small piece of legislation stands in the way: Title IX. The key passage itself is quite short — only 37 words long — but it has held up time and again in courts to ensure gender equality in athletic opportunity:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to dis- crimination under any education program or ac- tivity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
In other words, the University of Michi- gan couldn’t just pay Robinson alone. The Univer- sity would probably have to pay its entire football team and the rest of its athletes as well. As it turns out, college sports aren’t exactly built to support that kind of expense.
At Michigan, and across the country, only select programs actually make money: football, men’s basketball and sometimes ice hockey. That means that universities lose money funding the dozens of other sports they field. The soccer teams, the volleyball program and the brand-new lacrosse programs don’t bring in nearly enough revenue to cover the long string of expenses — facility and maintenance costs, coaches’ salaries, travel ex- penses, and so on — they incur on a yearly basis. Paying the gymnastics team would be throwing money at an already unprofitable organization.
But Athletic Departments make so much on football and men’s basketball that it doesn’t matter, right? Not quite. Just 23 of over 200 NCAA Division I public schools make enough money to cover their expenses.
Michigan and Michigan State are in the clear. But Georgia? North Carolina? Clemson? Each one of these schools is already unable to cover the costs of all of their sports — and that’s without paying players. Michigan has 27 varsity programs, from its most famous, football, to its latest addition, women’s lacrosse. Most other uni- versities boast a comparable lineup. They could lose millions more annually if they had to pay all of their student-athletes.
It is not fair that student-athletes make the Athletic Department millions of dollars and receive none of it in return. But if the profitable players get paid to play, all other athletes would have to be compensated as well. Then there might not be a football program when the next Denard Robinson sets foot on campus.
Alejandro Zúñiga is a senior sports editor and hockey beat writer at the Michigan Daily. He interned at USA Today Sports over the summer and contributes to the Detroit Free Press’ coverage of Michigan football.