The myth of amateurism is on the verge of being eliminated. It suffered a fatal blow in the modern Olympic Movement when the international federation for boxing agreed to allow professionals tocompete at the Rio Games in 2016. Although the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) still defends amateurism in the United States as an important theme, many challenges to the NCAA’s amateurism rules have arisen in the courts and most recently at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This Article examines the tradition of amateurism in college sports from both cultural and legal perspectives. It looks at the historical underpinnings of amateurism in the parallel dimensions of the Olympics and the NCAA. Born in nineteenth century England as a means to separate the aristocracy from the working classes, American universities adopted the theme of amateurism in sports to promote competitive balance. However, as collegiate athletics grew in popularity and developed into a massive commercial enterprise, universities, under the leadership of the NCAA, used amateurism toward off challenges from their athletes. Although the NCAA has found some judicial support for the “revered tradition” of amateurism, more recent court challenges have enjoyed some success under claims that the NCAA’s rules violate antitrust laws. More recently, student-athletes at Northwestern University gained support from the NLRB for the proposition that players should be deemed “employees” under the law. Moreover, significant challenges to the NCAA’s position on amateurism are working their way through the court system.
This Article concludes that it is time for the NCAA to abandon the theme of amateurism and proposes a new tradition in college sports—one that takes into account the players whose efforts make the enterprise possible. This new tradition would have two prongs: First, collegiate players—like their counterparts in the Olympics—should have the right to exploit their name and likeness for commercial purposes. Second, practical guidelines should be established to compensate college athletes (regardless of whether they participate in the money sports of football and basketball) reasonably for their labors.