America has a rich history of exploiting “free” labor; it is a quality older than America itself. America also has a history of defending these practices long after morality, market forces, and society’s general consensus have determined them to be at fault. Amateurism is one of these qualities, held in the highest regard among early modern Olympians, collegiate athletes, and those that play solely for “the love of the game”.  This won’t be a condemnation of those people, but rather the forces at play that demonized people like Jim Thorpe for being audacious enough to ask for fair market value in exchange for his expertise.

This week is the perfect opportunity to discuss this topic.  March Madness will take over tomorrow at Noon EST.  Millions will be glued to their televisions, streaming feeds, and radio broadcasts where the college basketball’s elite will battle for the Wooden trophy.  Advertisers, ticket sellers, vendors, NCAA executives, and universities will rake in untold millions as a result of this tournament.  Worker productivity across America will take a noticeable dive. Yet, no player will receive a cent as a result of their athletic achievements during their time in college.  The lucky ones may someday earn an NBA contract or an opportunity to play overseas, but not a single one will receive a check for their efforts during this season. 

Clearly there’s something wrong with this.  This tournament would not exist without the players, who attract fans from all across the nation.  These players are all adults over the age of 18, many with families, bills, and real world troubles to which their audience can relate.  Yet an entire organization, the NCAA, exists almost solely for the purpose of preventing these athletes from ever receiving direct compensation for their labor.  These players cannot even be treated to a steak dinner from a friendly booster without risking ineligibility and sanctions against their team. 

What if athletes were provided with a modest salary and were allowed to pursue academic interests at their own leisure, perhaps after their playing time is over? Time and again cases have been made that not all student athletes are capable of excelling in both areas. Athletic talent is a fleeting trait, so why burden athletes entering the peak of their prowess with a skill set that may be irrelevant if they are able to reach the pinnacle of their desired profession.  The hours of practice, weightlifting, individual training, and medical treatment are often overlooked demands. When placed on top of the NCAA required course load, the burden may be too much for these individuals to bear. A college education is a valuable tool and investment, but only if a student is willing to commit to the rigorous requirements.

In a capitalist society, lavishing praise on amateur athletes is a confusing concept.  Their amateur status prevents them from taking economic advantage of their situation, despite great wealth being flaunted at nearly every occasion around them.  The temptation to take advantage of their circumstances is too great for some, at which point they are chastised for accepting gifts and stripped of their eligibility. How are we supposed to accept this contradiction when the games themselves are interrupted in order to sell products to a television audience? How can we prevent individuals from capitalizing on their hard work at what could be their most marketable moments?

The NCAA also restricts an athlete’s ability to receive compensation in other ways.  For instance, an NCAA athlete cannot have a part time job as a salesman at a car dealership where they would be able to market their notoriety into an occupation.  This restriction doesn’t exist for the average American college student, nor for emerging athletes in Europe where professional contacts are common for athletes as young as 13.  Even the NBA has come to the absurd conclusion that elite high school players cannot make the jump straight to their ranks and now require a gap year. 

Elite athletes are forced to risk potential career ending injuries before they are allowed to cash in on their prowess.  This year’s best example would have to be Nerlens Noel, the former #1 high school player in the nation, and current Kentucky Wildcat freshman.  Had the NBA’s rule not existed, Noel already had the skill, size, and star power necessary to be drafted in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. Instead, Noel accepted a scholarship to Kentucky and tore his ACL blocking a shot on a fast break.  Noel was savvy enough to take out a personal injury insurance policy, but at the expense of at least $40,000 to him and his family. 

ACL injuries are not the catastrophic career ending ailment they once were, but should elite athletes and their families be forced to bear the burdens of insurance premiums and student loan debt? Aren’t these athletes entitled to a portion of the millions of dollars in revenue they earn their respective schools? Is the current system setting up student athletes to fail? I believe it is.