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A Plea for Remunerating Student-Athletes in Revenue-Generating College Sports

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The controversy about paying student athletes has one sacrosanct origin: amateurism. Derived from the Latin amator and the Old French amateur, as in "lover of," the -ism part hails from the notion of mens sana in corpore sano -- a healthy mind in a healthy body -- that, starting in the post-Napoleonic era, became an educational pillar of the British aristocracy's concept for a well-rounded gentleman for whom sports comprised as essential an ingredient of his proper upbringing as did a knowledge of literature, history and philosophy. Amateurism bespoke a disdain for any kind of striving for excellence, let alone the salience of winning both of which its purveyors viewed as déclassé and not behooving gentlemanly demeanor and codes of conduct. The only thing that mattered was participation.

Amateurism became a highly successful gate-keeping mechanism for the upper classes to exclude the lower classes as unwanted competitors on all playing fields way beyond the confines of sports proper. In its disdain for any kind of monetary remuneration, amateurism fortified in a rapidly changing industrial world that was to create what came to be known as modernity a well-established feudal notion that things created by and for money were morally inferior to things created solely for the sake of creation. This, of course, included sports as well. Amateur sports were seen as morally superior, as purer, than the nascent professional sports that were the creation of the burgeoning working classes whose members simply did not have the leisure to play for free the way the upper-class participants did. The perception of money as representing something morally inferior, even nefarious, has a long and lasting history in many cultures, including our allegedly all-monetarized one.

The undergraduate part of American universities hails directly from its British progenitors, Oxford and Cambridge. America's nine colonial colleges emulated these two pedigreed universities, which also included playing sports. But unlike Oxford and Cambridge, whose product needed no particular distinction in the then-still-sparse world of British higher education and thus continued to maintain its amateur purity to this day; this was not the case with their American imitators. Here, the need for differentiation among a greater number became a necessity, especially with the growth in institutions of higher education following the passing of the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862. Sports came to play a crucial role in these institutions' identity creation and product differentiation.

In 1874, Columbia University's President Frederick Barnard hailed the rowers' winning a regatta on Lake Saratoga because he knew that this victory would make the name of the university -- its brand, as it were -- known in places like Paris, London, Hong Kong and Kolkata. One year later Cornell University's president, Andrew White, welcomed his victorious rowers with flying flags and the university chimes a-ringing. The point is clear: From the middle of the 19th century, sports mattered to American colleges for their image and their product in an increasingly competitive higher-education environment which increasingly grew to see its raison d'etre in educating a broad middle class rather than guard and hone aristocratic privileges. Sports became a crucial ingredient of product differentiation the way the quality of the law school or the economics department did. Thus, winning came to matter, which meant that items such as financial favors to sub-freshmen recruits; constant violations of eligibility requirements; bowing to alumni interests and outside boosters; payments of professional coaches well beyond faculty salaries; and sports budgets far exceeding those of large departments and even entire schools emerged and remained with us to this day.

The point was clear from the late 19th century at the very latest: The universities became professional in every aspect of that term; the only ones strictly restricted to amateur status were the very ones who produced the ultimate value in this entire enterprise: The student athletes whose skill and labor has comprised the very foundation of this huge edifice.

The solution to the currently much-discussed though historically far-from-new conundrum seems to be quite simple: Let the market pay those student athletes whom it deems valuable! Concretely, if the market (i.e., boosters, fans, supporters, sponsors) finds a football quarterback more desirable than a defensive end, and both more than a swimmer or a squash player, then let them be rewarded accordingly. Universities should not pay any of them one cent since starting to pay any student-athletes would inevitably lead to a slippery slope of inequality that no university should advocate or represent: a star quarterback might be worth a lot more to a university than a squash player, but this difference in value cannot be borne by the university; but it can -- and should -- by market forces outside the walls of academia. Concretely, I see nothing wrong with Johnny Manziel being paid handsomely for his autographs; or Ohio State students selling their jerseys for tattoos or cash or both.

American college sports -- quite singular in the world -- constitute a hybrid: On the one hand they represent the non-market character of universities in which the amateur notion of sports for sports sake, for its sheer participatory dimension continues unabated. This is a wonderful tradition that deserves our full support. Hooray to swimmers, gymnasts and the multitude of fully-amateur student athletes. But there is the other hand, in which the few revenue sports reach way beyond the confines of the university's educational mission and academic identity and embody the closest thing that American sports have to European soccer's club structure. After all, unlike American professional franchises, college teams -- just like European clubs -- do not move from place to place. And this professional aspect of college sports that has much less to do with its affinity to a university and much more to its club-like character needs to be fully recognized and rewarded which -- among others -- also means allowing the open remuneration of athletes by the market.

The brand "Michigan" -- to stick with my university -- requires excellence in its academic endeavors. However, it also exacts the same quality in its sports, which means that the excellence of the university's law school is as crucial to the university's identity as is that of its football team. That renders the product "Michigan" distinct from Swarthmore, the University of Chicago, and the Ivies. Michigan's excellence in football depends on a myriad of entities all of which share only one thing: They are professionalized, meaning that they involve monetary payment on an official basis. The only exception to this is the players, the very actors that could arguably be viewed as providing far and away the most important ingredient for the existence and success of this crucial identity. It is high time that we end this reality-distorting anachronism.