Is Amateurism Dead in Collegiate Athletics?

“Am I nuts?”  Former sneaker pitchman and basketball promoter Sonny Vaccaro wants answers.  How can the NCAA, the networks, the coaches and the athletic conferences all profit from big-time college athletics, while the players get nothing?  How can the NCAA and NBA keep a talented basketball player from earning a living off of his unique talents until the player has attended college for at least one year?  How can coaches sign lucrative contracts with sneaker companies and agree that all of their players will exclusively wear that particular brand of sneakers, while the players get nothing?  How can the NCAA and its member institutions take advantage of players under the guise of amateurism, while running a multi-million dollar business?  “Am I nuts?”

Last week, I attended the Columbia University Sports Ethics Symposium, which discussed the topic of amateurism in modern day sports.  The keynote speaker was Sonny Vaccaro.  Vaccaro has been an outspoken critic of the NCAA and NBA, particularly with respect to whether players should be forced to attend college before playing in the NBA, and whether players should profit from the money that they generate for their school and the NCAA.  

 After 5 minutes listening to him speak, there is little wonder why he has been a successful pitchman for Nike, Reebok and Adidas.  Vaccaro has energy, passion and charisma to spare.  To attempt to summarize Mr. Vaccaro’s speech – which excitedly jumped from topic to topic, criticizing everyone from the NCAA, college coaches, athletic directors, athletic conferences, etc., littered with the rhetorical question “Am I nuts?” – would be impossible.  But there two points that were particularly interesting in this far-reaching debate.

“When did it become the right of the NCAA to sell me into perpetuity?”  Vaccaro was highly critical of the NCAA, schools and the athletic conferences for selling the rights to broadcast games and selling DVDs of games.  Vaccaro points out that the NCAA, schools and conferences are profiting from these games, long after game is over and the players’ careers have ended  The players, of course, receive nothing. 

While Vaccaro advocates mainly for basketball players, I prefer to use an example from college football – Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie.  Flutie’s game winning touchdown pass against Miami in 1984 is replayed every football season; it has been incorporated into ESPN’s SportsCenter opening montage and is replayed on ESPN Classic seemingly every year.  Pontiac has used the highlight in connection with a marketing campaign built around college football.  According to Vaccaro, players like as Flutie  who actually authored this historic play, get nothing, while everyone else profits from the constant reruns, replays and other merchandising opportunities.

Vaccaro’s argument has some merit.  Maybe players shouldn’t become millionaires off broadcasting rights and DVD sales, but some compensation might be in order, even if some portion of the money was allocated to an insurance fund for former players.   Considering the plight of former NFL players, who have engaged in a well-publicized fight for better health benefits from the NFL Players Association, there might be a place for a health care fund for former college athletes in need.  One panelist, Gary Charles, had a creative idea to compensate players – an escrow fund available once players graduate, to give them a head start as they joining the working force.  As I understood it, this fund would not go to the top players who leave school early for the riches of professional sports, but to those who stay in school and graduate.  An interesting idea, and one that might alleviate the general discomfort with a “pay for play” system in collegiate athletics.   

“Why Should the Top 1% of players bear the burden for all other collegiate athletes?”  Vaccaro believes that the star players that create revenue for the schools should be compensated in some fashion.  A myriad of arguments have been made for either side.  But the question raises an important point in the conversation about amateurism.  The players for whom Vaccaro advocates constitute a very small percentage of collegiate athletes.  As commercial as big-time athletics have become, the system does allow for a school to maintain many other athletic teams and programs that are clearly not profitable.  As Notre Dame football might support the field hockey team, the Fairfield Science department might help support the American studies program.  This model allows colleges and universities to provide diverse opportunities for learning and competition that might otherwise be unavailable.  As flawed as the system might be, it works for most student-athletes.   Moreover, most Division I schools will tell you that their athletic programs are not profitable.

Vaccaro covered many other topics, but the pervasive theme was whether amateurism was an outdated concept in today’s sports world.  The answer is likely yes – amateurism is dead – but only for a very small percentage of schools and very few athletes, who are passing through college to prepare for a career in professional football or basketball.  The large majority of student athletes still exemplify the ideals of the amateur athlete.


  1. Ron Francis says:

    the are compensated. it’s called a scholarship

  2. Flutie Magic says:

    This is such a dificult topic with so many variables, I do not think the NCAA is ever going to settle on an appropriate solution. The players that are the ones bringing in the money will certainly earn more in the Pros then what college can offer them.

    I like the idea of Gary Charles, but even some of the top tiered D-1 players who do not go on to play in the NBA or NFL do not graduate. All you have to do is look at the graduation rates of some of the top schools to see they consider graduation of these students an afterthought.


  1. […] Collegiate athletics is, at its core and on its surface to an increasing amount, a large and lucrative business.  UConn Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway was quoted as stating that the deal “will ensure that coaches and athletes are using the best game uniforms, practice gear, apparel and equipment for all aspects of their competitions.”  There is certainly some truth to that statement – Nike makes fine athletics uniforms and gear.  But this is a business decision, nothing more.  If Russell Athletics, or any other provider would have paid UConn $45.6 million, it likely would be UConn’s exclusive outfitter, regardless of any differences in quality.  (For more on the business of collegiate athletics, see Connecticut Sports Law’s article “Is Amateurism Dead in Collegiate Athletics?”) […]

  2. […] for the position of athletic director?  Perhaps.  College sports, at the highest level, is big business.  Coaching contracts are increasing in value, and the business of representing college coaches is […]

  3. […] The NCAA has stated that it needs to revisit its guidelines in light of these developments in the law and fantasy sports.  Given time, the NCAA may fight the use of player names in fantasy sports games and even resort to litigation.  However, the NCAA has not exactly been an outspoken opponent of profiting from the performances of student athletes. […]

  4. […] In one of my favorite posts, Connecticut Sports Law tackled the issue of amateurism and Sonny Vaccaro’s perspective, in Is Amateurism Dead in Collegiate Athletics? […]

  5. […] Sonny Vaccaro made news this week when he accused the NCAA of lacking the nerve to punish the likes of Duke and UNC.  Eric Prisbell of the USA Today (via the Sports Law Blog) has the story.  The story reminds me of the first time I saw Vaccaro speak, an event I covered in the post entitled Is “Amateurism Dead in Collegiate Athletics?“ […]

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