What does the end of amateurism look like?

Is forced NCAA reform good for athletes? Is it good for Cal?

A few weeks ago I rounded up the latest news on the collapse of amateurism, and that collapse is progressing quickly.

Just over a week ago NCAA President Mark Emmert spoke with the New York Times, in which he for the first time publicly acknowledged that amateurism cannot be saved, and that the NCAA must attempt to grapple with reality.

This change is, of course, being forced upon the NCAA. Multiple states have imminent legislation set to go into effect ending amateurism in one way or another, which means that the NCAA is finally facing facts mere months before laws go into effect. Profiles in courage, this is not:

The NCAA could have solved this years ago, specifically in 2009, the moment Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA for antitrust violations for putting his image on the cover of a video game. The NCAA's official strategy: litigate, litigate, litigate. Since then, it has lost at almost every key turn.

Although Emmert’s admission that the NCAA has lost matters, it’s not entirely clear what kind of rules the NCAA can put in place, and whether or not they can do so before state laws go into effect. Even with amateurism gone, the NCAA has an interest in establishing uniform national rules for programs to operate under. But if the NCAA puts in place organizational regulations that, say, match legislation in Florida but not California, they are opening themselves up to more litigation . . . and as noted above, the NCAA’s record in court is worse than the Pac-12’s record making the playoffs.

In my article from a few weeks back, a few folks in the comments took issues with my not-so-subtle NCAA grave dancing, and expressed apprehension about what comes next once amateurism ends. While I’m not even going to try to pretend I’m unbiased (die, NCAA, die!), I think it’s entirely fair to fear that the end of amateurism will cause some changes to the college sports landscape that will be for the worse.

Of course, the most important upshot is that half a million college athletes nationwide will no longer have an artificial and unfair barrier to profiting off of their own individual talents in whatever medium they so desire. That simple fairness, restoring that basic option otherwise available to any other American, is a positive change that easily trumps any of my petty concerns as a fan.

For the pro-amateurism argument, we can turn to an op-ed published by three academic researchers who have been paid to conduct research by the NCAA. Their argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Going to college on scholarship is really really great for an athlete

  2. Ending amateurism will reduce opportunities to go to college on scholarship:

What are the risks of a Supreme Court ruling that effectively professionalizes college sports? It will shift incentives for more student-athletes away from studies and toward the lottery ticket of the pro leagues. It jeopardizes these lifelong benefits and not just for those playing the professionalized version of college sports. Cash-strapped colleges will divert funding to cover the salaries of student pros and away from individual and so-called Olympic sports like swimming, wrestling, gymnastics, fencing and volleyball. These sports and scholarships for these activities will likely be reduced or eliminated, with some potential student-athletes losing their college education opportunity and the associated benefits of collegiate athletics.  

I absolutely don’t dispute that a free-ride education is a spectacular benefit, though a benefit that often pales in comparison to the monetary value many revenue athletes earn for their institution. The question is whether or not giving athletes’ NIL rights will end up harming that benefit in some fashion.

I would expect that ending amateurism would lead to fewer athletes going pro early - if you can make money AND get your degree at the same time, wouldn’t that incentive more to stay in school? But I think the point that pay-for-play may reduce scholarship opportunities for non-revenue athletes is a possibility.

However, it’s not clear that pay-for-play is what’s next for college sports. The text of California’s anti-amateurism legislation, for one, explicitly prevents direct pay-for-play:

This bill would prohibit California postsecondary educational institutions . . . from providing a prospective intercollegiate student athlete with compensation in relation to the athlete’s name, image, or likeness.

It’s possible that there is proposed state legislation floating around that would allow for explicit pay-for-play, but if it exists I haven’t found it yet. And I’d be surprised to see it - I don’t think state governments have any interest in trying to figure out how to handle adding a whole ton of employees to each public university that runs a major athletic department.

For my money, their pro-amateurism argument is based on presumptions and a slippery-slope argument that don’t match the current realities of amateurism reform.

Of course, this is all focusing on how these rules will impact important things like the material lives of student athletes and the budgets of colleges and universities. What about things that are comparatively unimportant but hugely important to my damaged psyche: How will these changes impact the competitive landscape of college sports generally and Cal specifically?

The answer? I have no clue, and I don’t think anybody else does either.

Much of the uncertainty stems from the possibly piece-meal rollout of amateurism. Arizona’s legislation goes into effect on July 23, while California’s legislation won’t go into effect until January 1st, 2023. Will certain programs be helped or hindered because of early or late arriving law? Will certain states have stricter or looser laws that will impact how easy or hard it is for an athlete to use their NIL rights?

Then there’s the uncertainty stemming from how each institution approaches these laws. Many (Most?) D1 schools will be like Florida State and 100% embrace name and image likeness:

Some (coughstanfordcough) may put their heads in the sand and pretend that nothing has changed. How much of a competitive disadvantage might that attitude prove to be?

I personally count myself as a skeptic that this change will radically alter the competitive landscape of college sports, at least at the very top. It was already in the monetary best interests of the best players to go to the power programs, and I don’t think that will be changing.

But who knows? This new reality may open the door for a program outside of the national elite to capitalize and make a leap with some savvy maneuvering. Is Cal likely to be that team? I really, really doubt it. Stodgy, bureaucratic, academically focused Cal doesn’t strike me as the school likely to embrace and adapt to a new order. I suspect that the end of amateurism is more likely to be bad for Cal’s competitiveness than not.

People employed in Cal’s athletic department: This is your chance to prove me wrong! I know that your initiatives may well be stifled by the campus at large, but it’s worth a shot. Chaos is a ladder, let’s step on UCLA’s paws on our way up!