Going for gold has taken on a different connotation since the Supreme Court ruled college athletes can be paid by parties not directly affiliated with their schools. Now, another ideal this nation once embraced — the scholar-athlete — appears headed to the dustbin.
The court ruled last year in a case brought by three students that it was illegal for the NCAA to restrict “education-related benefits.” That freed athletes to be paid for any use of their name, image, or likeness.
Star athletes such as Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young of the University of Alabama were immediately approached to sign multiple contracts worth thousands of dollars. But even players with less marquee value are banking cash while retaining their amateur status.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the court ruling have been female athletes. University of Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers has endorsement deals with Gatorade and other companies worth up to $1 million a year. That’s more than the average pay of most professional women’s basketball players.
The court decision also freed boosters to form “collectives” that can offer name, image, and likeness contracts to college athletes to entice them to play for their favorite schools. That wrinkle led to accusations by Alabama football coach Nick Saban that Texas A&M University’s top recruits had been “bought.” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher responded by denying breaking any rules and called Saban “despicable.”
The coaches’ spat isn’t by itself all that important. Both men have said the dispute is behind them — and they’re each certain to keep winning games and making a lot of money. But the court ruling that sparked their argument is worth noting for what it says about an America that once believed a college athlete’s biggest reward should be an education.
America was satisfied with perpetuating the myth that college athletes just want to win one for the team, and maybe get a degree in the process. America bought the myth that scholar-athletes don’t mind risking career-ending injuries while making their coaches and schools millions of dollars they may never get a chance to earn.
Some myths are hard to give up. We were well into the 20th century before history teachers stopped routinely bringing up the fairy tale that cherry tree-chopping George Washington never lied. That myth first spun by biographer Mason Locke “Parson” Weems prodded a young nation to consider honesty a prerequisite for the presidency.
That has changed greatly in recent years. America is much more cynical after the presidencies of Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton and Donald “The presidential election was rigged and stolen” Trump. Lying politicians are considered the norm, and truth is only expected on whichever news channel you prefer.
The Supreme Court says college athletes should get some of the money they generate. That’s fair, but why should athletes good enough to go pro be required to spend a year or two in college? They could earn a degree after going pro, and many do. Let’s stop treating America’s colleges like pro sports’ minor leagues. Let’s resuscitate the “scholar-athlete” ideal by providing additional classroom slots for students more academically than athletically gifted. Colleges can do that without a court decision.