Photo Credit: Associated Press

The 2021 edition of March Madness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament, is set to break a new record:

Advertising revenue for the tournament is the highest it has ever been, surpassing the $910 Million record set in 2019.

Of course, this record-setting revenue makes no difference to the athletes themselves, who are prohibited from profiting from their participation in college sports under the NCAA’s “amateurism” rules.

Much ink has already been spilt on the exploitative nature of this relationship. But despite the growing sentiment that the working conditions of college players must change, the Supreme Court has not addressed the economics of college sports since its 1984 opinion in NCAA v. Board of Regents. That is, until last Wednesday when the Court heard oral argument in a new antitrust challenge to the NCAA’s restrictions on athlete compensation, NCAA v. Alston.

At the center of the case is the sustainability of the NCAA’s vision of “amateurism” in the face of growing profits, coaches’ salaries, and public skepticism. But amateurism—the belief that sports is part of a students’ educational experience which would be undermined by the pursuit of profit— has been a tool for racist and classist exploitation since its inception.

In fact, the concept originated to protect the elitist reputation of Ivy League universities. The first intercollegiate sporting event was an 1852 rowing match between Harvard and Yale. Seeing the success of the event, other East coast universities also tried to grow their sport teams to attract students.

These universities began recruiting low- and middle-class men from the Midwest and South. This created an identity crisis amongst prestigious East coast institutions who saw their educational missions as inseparable from the race and class of their students. At the turn of the 20th Century, the solution was to frame intercollegiate athletics as part of the university’s mission. As the Dean of Brown University, Alexander Meiklejohn, stated when responding to an increase in football deaths, “The chief trouble is that men are hired to play and are brutal and tricky in character.” Or as Walter Camp, the founder of modern football, said at the time, “A Gentleman never competes for money.”

Camp and Meiklejohn both viewed amateurism as a proxy for a white and wealthy New England social status that could help maintain the mythical prestige of the Ivy League schools who were paying poor German and Irish players under the table.

This inherent tension between amateurism’s lofty ideals and the racialized economic reality of college sports has continued to plague intercollegiate athletics throughout its history.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, as schools faced worker’s compensation claims from students injured playing sports, the NCAA coined the term “student-athlete” to explain that athletes were not employees, but rather only received compensation sufficient to cover the cost of attending a university. This view continues to dominate the NCAA’s legal defense and shapes the Court’s framework for assessing the antitrust dispute in Alston.

Around the same time the NCAA invoked the “student-athlete” label, the racial integration of intercollegiate sports accelerated. Black players came to historically white campuses seeking social and economic mobility but were predictably discriminated against, received minimal academic support, and were disciplined when they would speak out about this treatment. Amateurism offered a convenient mechanism for dismissing critiques over racist treatment because it framed participation in college sports
as a unique educational opportunity for lower-class Black men who otherwise would not attend the university.

Today, these racist and classist ideals serve the same function they always have: to obscure the exploitation occurring at every level of college sports. In a variety of legal contexts, amateurism is a silver bullet defense that allows the NCAA to avoid hard questions over how it can justify marketing and selling every aspect of the sport without paying the students anything. As the Seventh Circuit said in a 2016 case, “[the] revered tradition of amateurism [. . .] defines the economic reality of the relationship between student athletes and their schools.”

Regardless of how the Court decides Alston, the Justices seem unwilling to confront this history. Even the progressives on the Court seemed to concede the economic and social desirability of amateurism. For example, Justice Breyer expressed concern of undermining something that has “brought joy . . . to millions and millions of people.” Justice Sotomayor asked whether “extravagant” education-related payments could “destroy[] the game as it exists?”

These questions seemingly adopt the NCAA’s framework for evaluating restrictions, namely whether the restriction protects the amateur status of college athletes. But asking questions from that perspective concedes the most important part of the athletes’ rights debate: Is the amateur ideal worth defending and what would a more egalitarian vision of college sports might look like?

Of course, the Court is unlikely to reach that broadly and much of athlete compensation will be decided in state and federal legislatures around the country. But reading coverage of the case, one senses optimism amongst sports writers, economists, and commentators that the Court will finally unravel the NCAA’s exploitative regime. Optimism must be tempered, however, by the history of amateurism. Despite its many changes, the concept’s racism and classism has persisted. One has to wonder, then, whether this time will be any different.

Instead of looking to Alston as a possible new era of college sports, advocates for athletes must understand it only as a single moment across a much longer history of athletes trying to seize collective power in a system that deprives them of it. Just as amateurism has long justified exploitation, so too have athletes resisted it.

For example, in 1936, players at Howard University refused to play until the school provided them with sufficient food. In 1969, Oregon State running back Fred Milton famously refused to shave his facial hair in response to team rules, which eventually launched campus-wide protests over racial justice. More recently, players at the University of Northwestern attempted to unionize. Their attempt nearly succeeded, winning with the administrative law judge before eventually being overturned by the National Labor Review Board. Finally, players this past summer sent a letter to the Pac-12 Conference listing a set of demands for the upcoming season including increased COVID-19 safety protocols, increased monetary payments, and academic support.

The point is not to minimize Alston’s impact. The Supreme Court must recognize the NCAA’s flagrant restrain on trade. But at the same time, the limits on what the decision can accomplish underscores the importance of building collective athlete power to shape their own futures.

Amateurism was born out of a desire to hide the contradiction at the heart of college sports. Across the 20th and early 21st centuries, it has served the same function. We must join with the generations of athletes who have and currently are fighting to expose this myth for what it is—a cover for racist and classist exploitation.