Amateur athletics belongs in college, but professional athletics does not. Amateur athletics contributes a great deal to higher education. It encourages students to maintain physical fitness, and, as the ancient Romans recognized, a sound mind depends on a sound body. Competition encourages self-discipline and pride in achievement, and team sports teach loyalty and service. Amateur athletics offers value for the spectators as well, helping to build a trans-generational community, binding together students and alumni, and providing models of the disinterested pursuit of excellence.
Professional athletics, in contrast, threatens to corrupt the college experience. It encourages a venal and mercenary attitude, and it subverts the pursuit of a well-balanced life embracing a variety of values. It reinforces the cynical idea that the pursuit of wealth is the only rational goal in life, and it fosters self-centeredness and narcissism.
American colleges and universities give lip service to the amateur ideal, but their practice falls far short. I’m not just talking about the many ways in which successful programs seek to circumvent the rules and compensate their “student-athletes.” I want to focus our attention instead on the blatant and open transgression of amateurism that is the norm: namely, the egregious system of richly paying coaches and other sports professionals. If college athletics was truly suffused with the amateur spirit, this would apply equally to coaches, trainers, and other off-field assistants. They too should be unpaid volunteers, recruited from faculty, staff, and alumni, offering their time and energies for the love of the college and the value of athletic competition, and not for personal wealth.
As long as coaches and other support staff are paid, and athletes are unpaid, the inexorable laws of economics ensure that college athletics will evolve into a money-making enterprise, with 100% of the “profits” diverted into high salaries for coaches and program administrators. With a ban on higher wages for athletes, each college is driven to pay more and more for winning coaches, in order to maximize the return on ticket sales and television deals. Even alumni giving to the university is increasingly diverted from education to the enrichment of a few individuals. The result is the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise might be funding scholarships, libraries, laboratories, and other essential facilities.
Professionally paid coaches, by their very existence, subvert all of the salutary messages of amateur athletics. They teach the overwhelming importance of the bottom line, of the superiority of winning over sportsmanship, of the promotion of self-interest over the spirit of service and community. It would be quite easy to reform this unethical travesty: simply require coaches, along with trainers, recruiters, athletics directors, and all their assistants, to be unpaid volunteers. If they hold faculty or staff positions in the university, their service to amateur athletics should be on their own time, outside their job descriptions, and uncompensated. This is a reform that could begin, unilaterally, on a single campus. The teams on such a campus might not win any national championships, but they would very visibly uphold the spirit of amateurism and shame other campuses into following suit.
The restoration of true amateurism would end the artificial separation of intercollegiate athletics from the rest of collegiate life. College athletes would have to share their practice and training facilities with the rest of the student body. With an end to professional recruiters, more of the athletes would be ordinary members of the student body, with ties to the academic life of the college. More students would have personal and scholastic relationships to athletics coaches, who would earn their living by teaching and advising non-athletes. All of this would actually increase the popularity and importance of intercollegiate athletics in the life of the college. And, not least, it would mean that nearly 100% of the money raised by ticket sales and television contracts would support the core mission of the institution.