Conference realignment is always disruptive–for athletic departments, athletes, and the news cycle. But it’s also become more and more common in recent years, from USC and UCLA making the move to the Big Ten last summer to the likely collapse of the Pac-12 last week.
Another potential implosion as a result of conference realignment? The concept of athletic amateurism itself.
Although amateurism in college sports has come into question for decades now, the years 2019-2023 have become particularly important to its destruction as a result of NIL, NCAA vs Alston, and, yes, conference realignment.
This has never been more true than the most recent realignment wave, producing college conferences that now resemble major professional sports leagues, spanning coast to coast. The Big Ten’s new media deals with NBC, Fox, and CBS are worth $1.1 billion per year had a specific vision of turning the league into the “NFL of college football conferences.” The Pac-12 schools left their longtime home simply because the television money was richer elsewhere. As a result, the Big Ten’s footprint now spans from Seattle to Piscataway while the Big XII stretches from Salt Lake City to Orlando.
It’s unfathomable to believe these “amateur” sports programs featuring “amateur” athletes who generate millions of dollars for their “amateur” teams are making such big money moves as a part of an “amateur” sports organization that the NCAA claims it is–yet the NCAA and its member schools try to pass as such every time this happens.
It’s not just the NCAA and its affiliates either. Last month, senators Tuberville and Manchin introduced the Protecting Athletes Sports, and Schools Act, a bill designed to regulate the NIL and transfer activity of college athletes at the federal level. Although the PASS Act has a long way to go until it’s signed, the bill would essentially codify many of the NCAA’s existing amateurism policies. Specifically, a section of the bill reads, “nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall affect the employment status of a student athlete,” implying that college athletes will still not be considered employees if it passes.
“College sports are a great tradition in this country,” Tuberville tweeted after news of conference realignment first broke on August 4th.
College sports are a great tradition in this country.
It opens doors of opportunity & teaches lessons that last a lifetime.
But college sports are in danger because we don’t have clear rules.
— Coach Tommy Tuberville (@SenTuberville) August 4, 2023
Tuberville’s tweet is only partially correct. College sports aren’t in danger because there’s not a federal-standard NIL law, which Manchin and Tuberville insist there’s a need for. College sports are in danger because too many are overly concerned in preserving the “great tradition” of college sports in some areas while ignoring harmful and hypocritical developments in other areas. The over-regulation of “amateur” athletes is in juxtaposition of schools and conferences that throw caution to the wind when money is on the line. This dynamic is arguably no more evident than in the way college athletes are condemned for transferring (or if Tuberville gets his way, restricted from transferring until they complete three years of academic eligibility), while schools and coaches can come and go as they please.
In this vein, amateurism isn’t only a rule in college sports–it’s a mindset that makes college athletes easy to control and places their needs at the bottom.
It’s also a made-up concept. The NCAA’s Commitment to Amateurism reads: “Member institutions shall conduct their athletics programs for students who choose to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a part of their educational experience and in accordance with NCAA bylaws, thus maintaining a line of demarcation between student-athletes who participate in the Collegiate Model and athletes competing in the professional model,” implying that while professional athletes can be paid, amateur athletes cannot. This isn’t a new concept…but it’s socially-constructed. And although many link athletic amateurism to the ancient Greek Olympics, those athletes competed for lucrative prizes like expensive oils and government-funded meals for life and, therefore, would have been barred from competing in the modern-day NCAA.
Rather, amateurism has its roots in 19th-century England when sports were becoming more popular and widespread. Classist upper-class English athletes found the reality of mingling with the lower-class difficult to accept. “More importantly,” notes cultural scholar David C. Young, “they found it difficult to win,” as much of the lower class had more laborious careers and athletic advantages that came with their lifestyle. As a result, the upper class created two divisions of athletes to compete separately: the “amateur” upper-class athletes who didn’t need athletic income to survive versus the lower-class “professional” athletes who did. This system created what sociologist D. Stanley Eitzen calls a “social apartheid” where naturally athletes were segregated based on race as well–women of all races need not apply. This is why Anita DeFrantz, the first Black woman to serve on the International Olympic Committee, once said “amateurism has always been a way to exclude people.”
Language has power, which is why, in a similar vein, the popular term “student-athlete” was also made up, not by the English, but by the NCAA in the 1950s as a way to deflect from legal pressure regarding athlete health and safety and compensation. When Walter Byers became the NCAA’s first executive director in 1951, he coined the term and replaced all similar words like “player” and “athlete” in NCAA policy books to implicitly argue that college athletes are students and not employees. The effectiveness of the term was put to the test in 1954 when Ray Dennison, a Fort Lewis A&M football player, died of a football-related injury. His widow, Billie, went to the school for death gratuity for her family and was denied because Ray was a “student-athlete,” and not an employee.
This is why amateurism, although ridiculous in the face of conference realignment and the big business of college sports, persists today–it’s encoded in our social language, and if Tuberville’s bill passes, our legal language as well. And today’s athletic amateurism still serves a similar function as amateurism of the past where the key goal was stratification. Today, Black athletes generate the majority of revenue for white coaches, athletic directors, and conference commissioners. Although women are now included in sports, they are woefully under-resourced and under-respected. And “student-athletes” as a whole are almost entirely excluded from decision-making, save for Student-Athlete Advisory Committees and one of two athlete representatives that are wildly outnumbered on various other NCAA committees.
This is the true price of conference realignment and similar initiatives that exclude college athletes from decision-making: it reifies existing structures that deny athletes a seat at the table and demands they fall in line instead. Had athletes been involved in last week’s changes, their real concerns like the mental health impacts of increased travel, and the fact that it’s incredibly hard to focus on school when you’re on a plane 2-3 times a week, could have been considered–especially if they were a part of a union with teeth.
As Oregon softball All-American Terra McGowan tweeted, “Has anybody thought about the repercussions that conference realignments have on student athletes quality of life? You’re asking them to travel across the country every other weekend while balancing school and a social life??? This needs to be talked about more.”
Softball players from the Pac-12 have been vocal about the conference realignment in college sports ?️
"What happened to mental health of student athletes being important?" pic.twitter.com/vEuk4g7Ed2
— The Sporting News (@sportingnews) August 5, 2023
But because the NCAA has strategically positioned “student-athletes” as students and not employees since the 1950’s, they remain the lowest social class in a college sports system that would make the English amateurs proud.
Amateurism has always been a social construct, and conference realignment simply proves that it’s true. The next step is getting college athletes involved in the decision-making processes that impact them the most.