College Sports as Amateur Athletics: A Critical Analysis
The term amateur in college athletics seems to no longer be applicable. Without a doubt, the college sports arena has become a spectacle of its own, allowing players to become overnight celebrities and guaranteeing their positions as future professional players There have been some subtle and not-so-subtle changes to how sports are viewed and accepted in the main stream that have led to this shifting of focus from “amateur” in college to a level all on its own. Much of this has to do with the amount of attention and money pouring into college level athletics recently, but there have been other factors as well.
Media attention has created an entirely new division of sports within the college arena. No longer are colleges the vague, proverbial breeding grounds for athletes whose names are not known until they become professionals. College sports seem to have a “professional” aspect to them now. The college arena, particularly with sports like football and basketball, has become much more watched and followed by the main stream public and provides many colleges with tens of millions of revenue dollars each year (Baird, 217). This shift has occurred in part because the media now covers most college games on television. But the media alone did not create this phenomenon. The media also followed the will of those fans eager to get a piece of athletics and athletes before they made their major league debut.
Corporate sponsorships have also paved the way for student athletes’ foray into the mainstream. No longer do companies like Nike or Gatorade only sponsor professional athletes. The term “student athlete” has been somewhat of a propaganda term used to legitimize the relationship between schools and their students who also play on the field. (Staurowski and Sack, 104). This is a product of the fact that, over the past half century, both the NCAA and companies like these now realize that the “amateur” world of college athletics has become so widely-viewed and popular that their sponsorships and logos are4 now visible to a much larger audience. The fact that companies are now shelling out big bucks for these sponsorships is testament to the fact that these advertisements are working, and that they are reaching an ever-growing audience.
College athletes themselves have become big business. Since the 1950’s, the commercialism that has prevailed in NCAA sports and the way that student athletes have been defined and regarded has changed the college sports world forever (Staurowski and Sack, 106). For the latter half of the 20th century, companies have been looking to increase their influence with marketing campaigns in places that are influential and popular to sports fans across the nation and the globe. Advertising in the college realm is another way of getting in before the market heats up. There are literally hundreds of millions of advertising dollars being spent at the college level where only a few decades ago, this realm was relatively untouched by sponsorship and marketing money.
Another major reason advertising has become so prevalent in the college athletics realm is the fact that as universities grow and become sports powerhouses, they begin to look for ways to keep their labor costs to a minimum in an relationship that resembles an employer-employee interaction (Staurowski and Sack, 106). This is to say that if a college can count on Nike throwing millions of dollars at their sports program or a particular athlete; this takes much of the financial burden away from the college while at the same time promoting that educational institution to millions of people and that college can put their emphasis on winning games. These combined effects make college sports a very fertile place for advertisers to infiltrate.
Another major consideration that colleges take into account relative to the visibility and success of their sports programs is the fact that they can offer scholarships to top athletes. This has the effect of attracting some of the best talent from around the country and around the world. It also helps to elevate the college’s own reputation as a magnet for athlete talent and has given rise to better competition between teams as a result, which has come from both the magnetism of the collegiate sports programs as well as the limitations set forth by the NCAA on financial gifts and scholarships (Baird, 218). Considering the revenues that have been recently generated by colleges with major sports teams, including selling out stadiums and the licensed apparel and other products, it is no wonder that college often see their sports programs as huge moneymakers themselves.
Currently, athletes and colleges are able to accept large gifts in the form of money, equipment, and endowments from companies and individuals. These gifts certainly influence the direction and focus of their sports teams, and have created a market for influence and visibility that has helped to elevate the college athletic world to a realm far above “amateur.” They have also helped to decrease the competitive balance among teams within the same division, and have given rise to specific critiques relative to salaries, scholarships, and the NCAA’s role in maintaining this imbalance in order to draw fans in and build up specific college teams (Baird, 233). There are rules and regulations as to who can accept what as far as gifts and scholarships are concerned, but there are generally loopholes in these regulations and as long as the money is flowing, there will be a market for this kind of influence. This sort of influence also tends to lower the bar at which students are judged for admissions acceptance to a particular school. This is true not just in the United States. Internationally, there has yet to exist a forum where colleges from around the globe can compete, since it is rather difficult to determine the athletic status of colleges in different cultures and educational systems (Abbey-Pinegar, 351). Perhaps a decomposition of the academic standards and benchmarks against which students are measured off the playing field could be avoided if the international regulations were modified to help with competition from around the globe.
The NCAA itself has restricted the types and frequencies of cash flow into colleges and athletes operating in the “amateur” realm. Even though the NCAA officially considers the college sports world a “non-revenue” realm, it is, in reality, far from non-revenue (Abbey-Pinegar, 348). This is also an indicator that the restriction of input and output for monetary gain and demand for the sport has had some major effects on competition, and how competitive balance is defined (Baird, 224). The influence of payment factors for production suggests a carefully manipulated and balanced market for college sports, which is neither healthy for the athletes themselves or for the NCAA. Certainly however, for the sports fans, there is a benefit to influencing college sports programs in order to succeed and compete at a higher level in their own division, irregardless of the “amateur” label that still may be present in name only.
Further study of the NCAA regulations and the changes made to them over the past few decades reveals that big time teams earn accounting profits, at the gain of the rich who are influencing the sports programs. This sort of input and output system is regulated on the surface by the NCAA, but since it exists in such a mainstream way, it certainly continues to be lucrative for those at the top to systematically re-brand the “amateur” world of college sports both domestically and internationally (Abbey-Pinegar, 349). This is a case where a person can follow the money and influence in order to identify the beneficiaries of the current regulations and behaviors put in motion by the rising popularity of college athletics.
The college sports arena is also more attractive to some fans because the rules are slightly different than in many of the professional versions of the sports. Some fans argue that the differences in the rules help with competition, and it’s tough to argue that the sheer number of college level teams does not help with competition and close games either. In fact, as a ratio of closeness of games as well as the consistency and length of the sports season in Pac-10 football, the competition has actually decreased by a factor of three over the past three decades. (Baird, 230). This competition and perception that the games are actually closer and more fun to watch also helps viewership nationwide, and gives the teams a fair, representative status for many of the towns and cities around the country that do not have a professional sports team to get behind.
Fans looking to root for a home team can much more easily find a college team than they can a professional one. This helps the fans relate to the action and the players on a level that they cannot often do in the professional leagues. There are few people who have ever played for a professional football team, but certainly there are millions of people who have gone to particular universities where the fans may have gone to themselves. It’s a personalization of the professional sports world, and this personalization over time has helped to legitimize the “amateur” world of college athletics.
Another major catalyst for college sports developing and evolving away from the “amateur” label is the fact that the rise of sports betting on college teams has been quite dramatic over the past two decades. There is little doubt that college athletic competitions are heavily wagered on, and all this money, influence, and attention helps to create an environment where the people doing the better are likely to have a personal and financial stake in the colleges’ sports programs. This creates fertile ground for sports teams monopolies, and while they are not subject to the same anti-trust regulations that businesses are, they act in much the same way (Abbey-Pinegar, 350). This behavior can also put schools and particularly student athletes in a vulnerable position. As student athletes begin to become less and less involved in their studies and realize that they are the impetuses and engines of major sports wagers, they also begin to adopt the “win at all costs” attitudes.
In summary, the college sports world has been influenced by money flowing into sports programs for the financial gain of outside parties. These are groups like companies looking to advertise, colleges looking for revenue and money from advertisers, gamblers, and athletes all looking to further their own financial status. Without a doubt, the influence that money has had on college sports certainly has taken them out of the “amateur” realm, whether that’s in name only or when it comes to the athletes themselves. There are certainly benefits to this influx of money for all parties involved, but these benefits tend to be unique to the demands and requirements of each of these groups. The main motivation behind the “de-amateurization” of college athletics has been financial gain, both relative to on the field play and off the field sponsorships, scholarships, and gambling winnings. Certainly this trend will continue and the “amateur” world of college athletics will resemble the playing fields of old less and less and more and more money and attention is given to sports programs around the nation at all levels, including those at colleges and universities.
Abbey-Pinegar, Erin. “The Need for a Global Amateurism Standard: International Student-
Athlete Issues and Controversies.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2: 2010. Pp. 341-365.
Baird, Katherine. “Dominance in College Football and the Role of Scholarship Restrictions.”
Journal of Sports Management, Vol. 18, No. 1: 2004. Pp. 217-235.
Staurowski, Ellen J. And Sack, Allen L. “Reconsidering the Use of the Term
Student-Athlete in Academic Research.” Journal of Sports Management, Vol. 19, No. 1: 2005. Pp. 103-116.
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