Avery Brundage was uncompromising when it came to amateurism.
Before the 1956 Summer Olympics, the American who served as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952-72 was asked by Sports Illustrated why the IOC altered the Olympic oath at the time to require athletes to promise to remain amateurs for life.
“We hope to save the Olympic games,” Brundage said.
More than 60 years later, the Olympics have had more than their share of problems, from politics to terrorism to staggering cost overruns for staging the games.
But the games endure, and have thrived, despite professionals being allowed to compete.
The NCAA’s model of student-athlete amateurism has been under siege for years, but perhaps never more so than since Monday when, in a grandstanding moment for both, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 206 into law on Lebron James’ show “The Shop." The bill allows college athletes in that state to make money off their name, image and likeness. The law would go into effect in 2023.
The NCAA, in a modern-day message Brundage would have approved, decried the law.
“As a membership organization, the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA’s rules-making process,” the NCAA said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California.”
While the NCAA may grudgingly admit that change is coming like it or not, it wants change to come in the time and manner of its own choosing. College sports’ governing body has had years to try to get in front of this issue and has been about as effective as a penguin trying to hold back a glacier from calving into the sea.
It is human nature not to take action on a major, reality-altering issues until we are forced to do so. SB 206, and others likely to follow in other states like Florida and South Carolina, mean the NCAA is forced to act.
Hopefully, a nation-wide method of governing how student-athletes can be compensated can be found. Compromise needs to rule the day. The NCAA and its schools can no longer have it all their way, but neither can the student-athletes, who have it better than a lot of NCAA critics would care to admit.
A student-athlete staying at a school for four or five years gets hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of education, training, medical care and nutrition. The suggestion that they are being forced into some sort of servitude is ridiculous. It’s the claim Ben Simmons made after his one tumultuous season at LSU before cashing in on his talents with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. No one forced Simmons to leave his native Australia and pass through college basketball’s gate to access NBA riches. The most direct route from Australia to the United States may be to fly from Sydney to Los Angeles, but you could travel around the world in the opposite direction and connect in London or Dubai if you wish.
Consider the case of New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson. He was a big deal coming out of high school, but his one season at Duke improved his marketability immensely. The year in college may have delayed Zion’s access to cash, but it enhanced it, as is the case for many other professional stars.
That said, the NCAA and its member schools brought this upon themselves. The gap between what student-athletes are compensated (the value of their scholarships and cost of attendance supplements) and what their coaches make has widened from a gap to a gulf. When LSU hired Gerry DiNardo 25 years ago, it was for the quaint salary of $350,000 per year. Ed Orgeron, who in March got a new contract worth $4 million per year, now makes that much in less than five weeks.
According to USA Today, Division I public schools spent more on coaches’ salaries and administrative costs than on scholarships for the first time in fiscal year 2018. That year, those same schools spent $161.3 million on severance pay to fired coaches.
Is it any wonder college athletes wonder why they’re not getting a piece of the pie?
That said, the Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) issue could be fraught with unintended consequences. A car dealing Oklahoma State booster in Tulsa could woo a five-star quarterback to the Cowboys because he’s offering a bigger endorsement deal than a Tennessee-loving car dealer in Knoxville, for example. As Orgeron said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference, wisely treading a middle road on the issue, there has to be some level of regulation.
“As far as paying the players, I think the players should get as much as they possibly can,” he said. “But there should be a system like we have now with the cost of attendance. If we can do it without it getting ridiculous, I would be for that.”
It’s likely to get ridiculous, before it gets worked out, but the glacier is moving. College athletics as we know it is bound to change, perhaps painfully so.
But it isn’t going to need saving. Like the Olympics, it will endure one way or another.