Friday, February 21, 2014

Amateurs need to be paid

For decades, the ideal of amateurism has obscured the reality that sports, whether part of the Olympics or a bowl game, are big business. That reality is driving what are likely to be major changes in the role and compensation of athletes.
    Northwestern University’s athletes are looking to unionize in order to negotiate more immediate and tangible returns than those currently offered to “student athletes” for their contributions.
    At first blush, the demand seems outrageous. A full scholarship for a player at a top-flight school like Northwestern is the equivalent of approximately a quarter million dollars. The future value of a Northwestern degree is undoubtedly higher.
    The ideal of the amateur athlete pursuing his or her sport for the pure love of the contest is compelling. That ideal drove longtime International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage to resist for decades the participation of professionals in the Olympic Games, and to overlook the nonsensical notion that French champion Jean-Claude Killy was a postman who just happened to be the best skier on the planet.
    There is no doubt that love of their sport in particular and competition in general drives any athlete. Watching the incredible skills demonstrated by Olympic athletes makes it seem unlikely that anyone would or could spend the time and effort necessary to reach that level in return for money alone. No matter how much they love their sport, however, athletes deserve their share of the money now generated by those efforts.
    Sports have become big business. Between 2003 and 2012, Northwestern University’s football revenue totaled $235 million and its expenses totaled $159 million.
    Admittedly, not every sport generates that kind of return but modern college sports are not just an extracurricular activity. Proof of their growth and immense profitability is demonstrated by the willingness of colleges to give up traditional rivalries beloved by students and alums in order to reap huge money from television contracts and bowl appearances.
    We cannot go back to a simpler time when football players wore leather helmets and crew was the avocation of Eastern gentlemen. The money and joy of sport come from the athletes and they deserve both protection and fair compensation in return. Unionization may not be the exact answer, but discussing it is a good start.

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