Amateurism as we known it is about to change. In defiance of the NCAA, California has passed legislation prohibiting its universities from penalizing student-athletes for signing endorsements, monetizing their own likeness, and even working with agents. Other states are quickly following California’s lead, including Kentucky, which is reportedly drafting its own bill as we speak. Simply put, we may very well be witnessing the final season of true amateur athletics.
Not surprisingly, this has led to a fierce debate among fans—some viewing it as the demise of college athletics, others as necessary progress. I for one am in favor of the change. Not necessarily as a fan (although can you imagine UK coaches now able to sell the ravenous market demand that is the #BBN???), but even more so, as a Christian.
Surprising to some, the Bible is actually a revolutionary document on the issue of economic justice. What emerges from passages such as the Old Testament Laws and Proverbs are innovated concepts of private ownership, free trade, and just transactions. We take these principals for granted, but that is only because we inhabit a culture where they are assumed. Historically speaking this is not the case. History is dominated by feudalistic systems until the 16th Century when Western Europe, influenced by the Biblical Worldview, began practicing what we now know as capitalism. Since then, capitalism has proven itself to be the greatest economic system the world has ever known. (As an aside, I recognize support for socialism is on the rise in America, but as I argue on my podcast this week, this is in reaction to the abuse and exploitation of capitalism rather than the principles therein)
But the Bible grounds the tenets of capitalism in much more than mere pragmatics. That is to say, it’s not an issue of effectiveness as much as an issue of justice. Which brings us to the dilemma of college athletics. I believe these state legislations will prove to be a good free-market correction to what has become a massive problem, which is the glaring disconnect between amateur and professional athletics (one day you’re broke, the next day you’re a millionaire). Eventually it will be amateur athletics that suffers, even more than it already is. Professional athletic associations are rapidly changing, and without significant change on the amateur side, the day will come when every elite athlete will simply bypass college for the pros. So allowing for money in college athletics will go a long way to preserving its excellence. But that’s not why I’m supportive. I’m for it, because it’s the right thing to do. Again, the Bible espouses the justness of private ownership, and on a most basic level that must include the ownership of own’s own likeness.
The undeniable reality is that the NCAA, along with its conferences and universities, are massively profiting off of the billion-dollar industry that college athletics has become. And I don’t begrudge them for it. I have no problem with coaches and athletic directors being the highest paid employees at public universities, because that’s what the market demands. And the truth is that these athletic programs are in turn bettering the universities they support. Even beyond the campus, local communities flourish because of college sports. Could you imagine Kentucky’s economy without UK Athletics? (Goodbye KSR, cursed be the thought) So yes, the capitalist in me is comfortable with the industry of athletics as a whole.
However, the issue I have is the glaring injustice that the only ones not benefiting are the athletes themselves. The very likenesses that are being leveraged for profit, are themselves not sharing in those profits. That is the very definition of exploitation. And spare me the scholarship argument, nobody else receiving a college scholarship is prohibited from making money on their own.
That said, I know the naysayers will struggle with the idea of corrupting amateurism with money and agents. And I sympathize with that struggle. The purest in me wants to preserve the uniqueness of amateur athletics competing for the love of game not money. But we have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s an issue of market demand, and we the consumers with our unfettered obsession for college sports have created this billion-dollar monster. It is what it is. College athletics is one of our culture’s most profitable industries, but the only ones not profiting are the athletes themselves.
It is past time for the exploitation to end. Thou shalt not steal. That includes stealing from the likeness of an athlete.