Cam Newton, Amateurism and the NCAA: Why It Matters

Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.--G.K. Chesterton

Part II of III: The Value of Amateurism

THERE'S NO REASON to get into a long diversion about how some question in sports points to A Greater Truth About Our Entire Society, because I think most people don't really enjoy those columns from mainstream writers, and because it's only tangential to our argument here. But it's an important tangent, and one that kind of gets to the heart of the controversy here.

It comes down to this: Is an ideal worth it? Because ideals are not always clean, and enforcing one often comes at the expense of enforcing another, but that doesn't mean that we should just give up on all idealism.

Yes, college administrators and conference commissioners and the like haven't always been the models for how an amateur sports system should be run. But that doesn't mean that the ideal itself is flawed; it simply means the human beings running it are flawed. The system and the ideal are two separate things, and we get into a lot of trouble when we combine the two.

But the real clash of ideologies comes as America tilts past pragmatism and into cynicism. There is a difference between pragmatism and cynicism that isn't always appreciated. Someone who is pragmatic often has an ideal or ideology of some sort, but is willing to make certain concessions to reality or compromise. Cynicism can be as uncompromising as the strictest ideology and is its own kind of ideology, a belief that rules and ideals are unimportant or even dangerous because they are the relics of an old, authoritarian era.

Some of the positive argument that's coming -- the positive case for why amateurism should be maintained in college -- isn't going to appeal to the cynics. Because I believe that ideals do have intrinsic value, and this argument will rest in part on those ideals.

Learning the trade

When reflecting on my time in college, I tend to remember far more about the time I spent at The Gamecock than the time I spent in class. The truth about journalism is that there is very little you can learn about it in lectures; it is a trade that is learned by taking the few principles you can be taught and applying them over and over, until the easiest parts become second nature and you're able to move on to more complicated stories and, hopefully, better opportunities.

Did I sometimes miss class to cover things for the paper? Yes. Were there times when I was working on a story or editing a page when I should have been studying? Absolutely. And I don't regret it in the least. Even though, truth be told, the stipend I got when I made the editorial ranks was very modest. We sometimes joked that it amounted to about a dollar an hour, if that.

Now, I'm not going to say that being involved in The Gamecock was as involved or in any other way the same as being on the South Carolina football team. Summer participation, for example, was absolutely voluntary in every sense of the word.

But I was learning a skill and taking far less money than I would have made working for a paper of the same size in the "free market." The reason I did that was because I knew that it would better prepare me for when I took the job that would actually pay me a decent amount of money. And the reason that it was less than it should have been were because of some of the same reasons college football players aren't paid today; cross-subsidization of other student media organizations, including a sort of cross-subsidization of students who were learning to sell advertisements by working in an ads department that didn't do the kind of business professionals would do

Similarly, Cam Newton got a scholarship that allowed him to take advantage of an education, and allowed him to improve on his already remarkable athletic gifts. He got all the training associated with a minor or developmental league -- for free. He didn't get a salary, but he also faced few of the expenses that players in minor or developmental leagues often face. Those who would pay players "market value" look at this and call it an injustice. The rest of us look at it and call it college.

And, again, he got the opportunity to take advantage of a college education for free. That might not mean a lot to Cam Newton, who is going to make millions of dollars playing football, but it will mean something for the second-string player who has a degree that will allow him to get a better job than he would have coming out of high school.

Yes, some of the students involved in college athletics don't graduate. But that's a problem to be fixed in its own right, not something to be addressed by gutting amateurism, something that actually encourages some tenuous link between the field and the classroom. Otherwise, you might as well do what Don Yee recommended: Admit that it's not college football anymore, privatize it and be done.

The athlete as a student

One of my favorite Gamecocks during my time as a fan of the team has to be Eric Norwood. Part of that is because Eric Norwood was the kind of elite player that rarely took the field for South Carolina in the years before Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier ended years of haplessness for the program.

But part of it is also because of Norwood's off-the-field story. Norwood was turned down no fewer than three times by South Carolina's admissions office. In the kind of lobbying that makes the Knight Commission stutter with anger and advocates for paying players say, "See -- it's not really about academics at all," Spurrier and his coaches finally got Norwood admitted.

He graduated in three-and-a-half years.

Now, aside from having to play on one of the worst teams in the NFL (the Panthers), Norwood has done pretty well for himself, and would have even if he hadn't gotten the degree. But the fact that one of the reasons he apparently decided to return to school -- after talking with his mother -- was to graduate should tell us volumes about the seriousness with which at least some players take the "student" part of student-athlete. And most of them should.

There were 254 other players selected in the 2010 NFL Draft along with Norwood. Let's conservatively estimate that there are 50 players on average on an NCAA team. (This is probably ridiculously conservative, since there are 85 scholarship players allowed for each team, but we'll go with it for the moment.) Let's say that a fourth of them are seniors graduating from school in that year. That's 1,500 players. Even before we account for FCS and teams from other subdivisions that will be drafted, and even excluding the juniors that will leave college early and get drafted, the overwhelming majority of NCAA players will never take the field for an NFL team. If they don't get something else of value from college, they're going to find it incredibly difficult to make a living; there are only so many Arena Football League teams, even when the league is running.

The organization taking that issue on, oddly enough, is the very one that advocates for paying players often say is unconcerned with their welfare. The NCAA has long worked to try to find a way to make sure students are moving through college, and hopefully graduating. The APR has more problems than I care to catalogue here -- just do a Google search on it -- but an imperfect tool is better than no tool at all, and it at least attempts to address the problem.

And this again focuses on college football, when the focus should be on college athletics. The likelihood of a college player making a pro basketball team -- where you have fewer NBA roster spots and more college teams, though fewer players per team -- are just as remote, if not more so. And no one has to be told how few professional opportunities there are in lacrosse or volleyball.

Many of those players are not going to college as a way station to the pros. They are using their athletic abilities to instead get a chance at a college education. And these are the students who would be harmed if college athletics departments had to start coming up with the money to pay players.

After all, what real harm is being done to Cam Newton by his playing "for free" -- if not being required to pay for a college education valued at tens of thousands of dollars is really playing "for free" -- at Auburn? (Now is also as good a time as any to note that it's not the NCAA that's saying Newton can't play at the professional level -- it's the NFL.)

But gut these other sports, and there would be very real harm done to athletes in other sports that would find the money that once funded their scholarships gone -- all so Cam Newton could get a few hundred thousand dollars' advance on the millions he will soon enough make.

Again, that might seem fair to some who want to pay players. But it seems to me like we would be skewing college sports' perspective even more by doing so than by trying to tweak the system we have.

The college in college sports

Of course, some of that is inherent whenever we make "college football" a compound noun. Because we forget that "college" is meant to be an adjective, meant to describe and to some extent define the sport, not just remind us that these teams are affiliated with higher education in some way. But it is still important to remember that, whatever greed appears to be driving the current system, college football is still a part of our higher education system.

And free markets, whatever virtues they might have in other areas of life, fail miserably in higher education. That's because we will always need a baseline level of nurses and doctors and even lawyers, no matter how popular those programs will be. It's because education always produces inefficiencies -- indeed, it has as a part of its code a built-in inefficiency: Some things you discover and learn simply because it's good or meaningful to know those things, not because those discoveries will lead to new markets or profits. Sometimes, you're trying to make a better humanity, or even just a better human.

Because college sports is part of that, any effort to impose some idyllic notion of fair-market value -- even for college football -- eats away at the fiber of higher education. And as much as I love college football, I love having a functioning and vibrant system of higher education more.

Again, you can go the Don Yee route and privatize the sport if you want, and players can get paid as much as the market will bear. Or you can admit that having a college sports systems places some restraints on what you can do. But you can't do both.

The people who advocate "fair market value" college sports are taking a fence down without knowing the reason it was put up. It wasn't to protect players from some sort of scourge of professionalism. It was to keep colleges from losing an essential part of their character and to protect higher education from becoming just another business in industrial capitalism. No, we haven't done a particularly good job of that with the current system. But paying players and adding more money to the system, or at least creating more people with a more intense financial interest in the system, seems to be a rather odd way of fixing that problem.

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NEXT: Solutions

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