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A Solution to College Athletics' Amateurism Problem

The past year and a half of college football has included one story after another about players running afoul of NCAA rules. We say things like "illegal payments" and "impermissible benefits" because that's the lingo of the beat. Really though, the only reason that actions like partying with NFL draft picks and selling autographs is verboten for student-athletes is because the NCAA says so. Those things are not illegal outside the bubble of college athletics.

As long as the NCAA has had a rule book, people have violated the bylaws in it. Nothing that is going on today is truly new, it's just that our connected world has made it easier than ever to catch people in the act. As long as college athletes are celebrities (and they are on the local level regardless of national profile), people will try to offer them things that are against NCAA rules in order to be close to a celebrity.

The wannabe economist in me then ponders what sort of incentives can be offered to make sure athletes remain amateurs. The NCAA has adopted a Big Stick approach, with suspensions for players and sanctions for programs. Ultimately, that will not work unless the rate of catching violators goes way up. The biggest stick the NCAA ever swung, so big that few believe it will ever be used again, was the death penalty it gave SMU for paying players. Less than five years after the Mustangs got back on the field, Pat Dye and Auburn were busted for... paying players. Even the death penalty failed as a deterrent because the folks on the Plains apparently thought they wouldn't get caught. Neither did those who have been busted since.

So if the stick won't do, could a carrot? What can you offer student-athletes to get them to follow the current rules? As far as I can tell, all you can offer is some sense of pride for "doing the right thing." Unfortunately, most stores stopped taking "doing the right thing" as payment for goods and services a long time ago. Unless the NCAA wants to keep the current situation, which is entirely possible, something must be done.

One solution thrown around lately by Jim Delany, Mike Slive and others is increasing the value of a scholarship to include the total cost of university attendance. That's likely to end up a couple thousand dollars per player a year. While that has the potential for getting rid of some of the small scale NCAA rule violations, it's also a great way to bankrupt a lot of programs that are currently struggling to stay afloat. Is there a way to give players more money, not put a bunch of programs out of business, while also preserving amateurism?

There is, for a different value of "amateurism."

Strictly speaking, college athletes are already not true amateurs because A) they get compensation for playing their sports in the form of scholarships and related benefits from the school, and B) they get formal training from paid, professional coaches and trainers. About the only leg that NCAA amateurism stands on is that athletes don't draw salaries for playing their sports.

They also can't profit from their likenesses, but that's where the opportunity for change is. Most NCAA rules are designed around making sure athletes don't get benefits above and beyond what the general student population gets. However, if non-athlete students have or acquire some level of fame, they can cash in on it however they want. Profiting from a likeness doesn't fall under the umbrella of things the general student population can't do. Also, you have the absurd situation where if a student-athlete or two open a business (which does happen), they can't put their names on it.

Allowing student-athletes to profit from their likenesses does create a lot of issues. If athletes could begin profiting from making ads or appearing at public events, they'll need agents. Will the school handle that for them, or could they go out and find agents of their own? Would EA go through the trouble of negotiating with every college player or keep up its farcical "we don't use real likenesses" stance? It's a bit of initial trouble, but its worth it because forcibly denying a person the use of his or her likeness borders on (if it isn't entirely) a violation of first amendment rights.

Me? I'd look forward to it just because I'm an aficionado of terrible local ads that coaches and former players do. Take that Clint Stoerner ad up there. The production values are only the second-worst part of it next to the horrendous copy that he had to read. While its entertaining to see ol' Clint wonder what could have been if he had this apparently growth hormone-laced milk as a kid, just imagine the fun if athletes could do these while in school.

The all-you-can-eat buffet could hire the big eaters on the offensive line to do a spot. The speed receiver could symbolize how quick the local pizza joint's delivery is. Everyone assumes kickers are nerds, so, um, textbook stores could hire them. The possibilities are endless.

In all seriousness, a lot of college athletes already profit from their likeness in the form of free food, drinks, club covers, and the like they get around town. Making it so they officially can profit from their likeness would be paving the cow path that's already there. We can keep going through this rigmarole of catching 5 percent of guilty players for impermissible benefit sand flogging them in public for it, but I think the public is tiring of it. Support for the NCAA's rules are only going to erode with time, so the association can either be proactive or reactive on this issue.

Given history, I'm betting on reactive. Until then, just hope the investigators don't show up at your school.