Why historical past issues within the U.S. Supreme Court docket case about scholar athletes (opinion)
This year March Madness includes competitions both on the court and in court. College sports fans can watch basketball games that lead to the Final Four – good news after last year’s championship tournaments were canceled. The bonus this year is that they can also follow another major event: a case currently being debated in the U.S. Supreme Court involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association against former West Virginia University soccer player Shawne Alston and other student athletes compete for compensation because of the eligibility rules.
Supreme Court justices won’t make their decision until July on this landmark case involving student athletes’ right to get paid. In the meantime, it is time to review the opening arguments. Deliberations over the next three months will most likely include legal precedents related to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In addition to law and economics, however, this case is special, as the introductory arguments have shown that history plays a role in the reform of university sports.
The arguments of 2021 were coined in 1984. Thirty-seven years ago, in a previous case involving the NCAA, Judge John Paul Stevens set the stage for NCAA versus Alston by saying, in majority opinion, that the NCAA was instrumental in upholding a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports . “
Today nobody disagrees with this claim. However, it is unclear what it means. What exactly was the character and content of the “revered tradition of amateurism in university sports” of the NCAA? Seth Waxman, attorney for the NCAA, built its historical foundation with his opening remark: “For more than 100 years, the special nature of college sport has been that it is played by amateur students, that is, they are not paid for their game . “
The NCAA and its attorneys would lead us to believe that if the NCAA lost this case, amateur athletics in our colleges and universities would lose their guardians of solid values and practices.
However, a team of six historians led by Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus Ronald Smith has filed an amicus letter that documents a distinctly different record of NCAA actions and advocacy of amateurism. Smith and historians Taylor Branch, Richard Crepeau, Sarah Fields, Jay Smith, and I have presented a trail of tears in our letter that shows that the NCAA has often actually provided financial compensation to student athletes when it is convenient for the NCAA to do so and is beneficial. A fitting metaphor for participation in the NCAA was “the electric slide,” in which “amateurism” has been conveniently redefined several times over the years to allow for and even encourage some compensation. The conditions usually benefit the NCAA and college sports departments when it comes to competing for talent and attracting viewers. These NCAA concessions are often reluctant and often only occasionally affect the rights of athletes.
The NCAA likes to refer to an embellished past that celebrated its creation in 1906 during a series of college leaders’ meetings with President Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, the organization was formed as the United States Intercollegiate Athletics Association, or IAAUS, and later became the NCAA. More importantly, the historic universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, which at the time also had the strongest sports programs in the country, did not attend these formative meetings or join the club. The main agenda was about violence and injury on the soccer field, not a code of amateurism.
In addition, there has been little evidence since then that the NCAA has established or enforced standards for amateurism in university sports nationwide. The NCAA had no significant role in policy or regulation of the definitions or requirements of athletes for students until after World War II. From 1951 onwards, the NCAA devoted most of its time to television and revenue-related politics and how to stop the nationwide decline in college football game attendance.
Indeed, it is difficult to identify a golden age of amateurism in college sports, be it 1852, 1922, or 1962. Over time, the NCAA eventually advocated that colleges be allowed to offer full sports grants in support – a significant shift from their previous objection to such practices. The NCAA’s operational definition of amateurism for college athletes in the late 1970s was even expanded to allow a student to be an amateur college athlete in one sport and a paid professional athlete in another.
In our Amicus Brief we, as historians, tried to blend documents with our main argument and our interpretation in a precise and disciplined manner. We made sure to underestimate our case and avoid exaggeration. We focused on major spectator sports like FBS soccer and NCAA Division I basketball. Our letter is concise and does not exhaust all sources and events connected with our story.
For example, an important episode that we did not cover in our letter is that of the Pacific Coast Conference between 1946 and 1959, when the discovery of “slush funds” organized by alumni boosters to pay recruited athletes institutions: the University of Washington; the University of Southern California; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Los Angeles. The players on these teams were punished for being limited to the number of games they could play in a season, and the soccer teams of the four offender universities were declared ineligible for the Rose Bowl. The tensions and conflicts between the member institutions were so great that the conference was dissolved by 1959. A legacy of the scandal was that conferences and their member institutions – not the NCAA – were the real sources of reforms and measures to enforce student amateurism.
As a consequence, when reviewing the history of the NCAA, it is difficult to see adherence to a coherent definition or ideal of a student athlete over time. The problem has gotten worse, not better, in the 21st century. A new generation of serious undergraduate athletes and their families have openly stated that they spent considerable time and money training and preparing to play on a college varsity squad and perhaps receive a scholarship. In addition, the tacit adherence to and promotion of “one and do” strategies by university officials underscores the professional association and pursuit of some athletes, particularly those in tall men’s college basketball.
Add to the flammable discussion that the proliferation of new social media now offers young athletes opportunities for endorsement, advertising and income that were not available to an earlier generation. A good example of a conflict with the NCAA’s definitions of athletic amateurism is Hunter Woodhall, an eminent sprinter, double amputee and national fame as a member of the University of Arkansas championship team. According to a March 29 article in the New York Times, Woodhall’s track record as a student and athlete had earned him 3.1 million social media followers and an estimated potential income of $ 800,000. Woodhall quit college competition after waiting (and waiting) to hear from the NCAA that it was exempt from its student athlete compensation restrictions.
In addition to Woodhall’s example in athletics, lead author Ronald Smith has compiled numerous cases documenting how swimmers who have won international championships have each received hundreds of thousands of dollars in awards without violating NCAA eligibility requirements. Smith’s roster includes Olympic gold medalists who were also NCAA champions. First up are Katie Ledecky of the Stanford University team of the NCAA Championship, who was awarded $ 300,000 for her Olympic accomplishments, and Joseph Schooling of Singapore, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter butterfly, who is also for the team swam in the University of Texas NCAA Championship. As such, they illustrate the changing landscape of what is meant in terms of engagement and reward for students who are outstanding athletes.
The Amicus letter we submitted looks back at the past and provides a guide to creating an appropriate, realistic New Deal for student athletes. At the heart of a new pact is the recognition that a defining characteristic of college sports is that they are played by students enrolled in colleges and universities. This is what distinguishes intercollegiate athletics from professional leagues. Whether or not these student athletes are allowed to compete in university sports while receiving different payments for their sporting achievements is not necessarily an indelible decision factor.
Therefore, students and their families, including their advisors, should work with colleges and conference and NCAA representatives to discuss and agree appropriate terms for each student, college, and conference. The guidelines should include consideration of the rights of athletes to represent and pursue opportunities. This includes the possibility of income from social media platforms and other forms largely unknown to college students or college officials in an earlier era. Such measures would help turn the big business of college sports into the serious business of an educational institution that cares for its students.