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After a recent in-depth investigation revealed that Ohio State football players were leveraging their fame as college athletes to make money, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel resigned in disgrace. But his legacy shouldn’t be tarnished because he broke the rules of the NCAA’s antiquated and unjust system of amateurism.

By calling their players “student-athletes,” the NCAA prohibits them from capitalizing on their athletic success in any way, on the grounds that it would jeopardize their amateur status. And while players receive a full scholarship, it is clear they are being taken advantage of. This system should be changed in college sports. There is no reason they should not receive money made for playing sports at these universities.

Tressel’s Buckeyes made their school a significant amount of money. In 2008, the school’s athletic department made $118 million, $20 million more than arch-rival Michigan.

For schools, the benefits of athletic success extend far beyond the playing field: For instance, applications to Georgetown skyrocketed after the basketball team’s success in the 1980’s, helping it go from regional to nationally-recognized institution. 

But for the players, the downside is clear: They are risking their professional futures. Tyrone Prothro, a standout wideout for Alabama, tore every ligament in his knee in a 2005 game. He never recovered and instead of getting a multi-million dollar NFL contract, Prothro now works as a bank teller.  

Football players become campus celebrities, but their education often suffers in the process. Before Tressel’s resignation, the problem of “over-signing” was one of the biggest stories in college football. Football teams are allowed only 85 scholarships, but they can offer more than 25 each year. Scholarships aren’t guaranteed for four years; staying in school is dependent on the players’ performance on the field.

Any player who emphasizes the classroom over the playing field risks being left behind. In Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, JoJo Johannsen, a star basketball player, decides to enroll in a challenging philosophy course titled, "The Age of Socrates," instead of the "Rocks for Jocks" classes that he had been steered towards for most of his career. His coach doesn’t take the news very well, screaming:

“The Age of Socrates ... You simple-minded s***, I got news for you ... You got any f****** idea what I mean? YOU GOTTA MAKE IT RIGHT OVER THERE!"

"[The coach] thrust his right forefinger in the general direction of the basketball arena so hard, his whole shoulder and upper torso jerked. “AND YOU GOTTA MAKE IT THIS YEAR! — OR YOUR ASS IS F*****! The Age of Socrates ... YOU’RE HERE TO DO THINGS WITH A ROUND ORANGE BALL!”

Many players do receive a quality education, but that is a by-product, not a feature, of the NCAA system. Morally, there is no legitimate reason why they shouldn’t receive some portion of the millions of dollars they generate for their schools.

But in reality, the NCAA would collapse if they did, which is why the schools and the media that profit off them are so quick to enforce the pretense of amateurism. Recently on ESPN, college football analyst Brent Musburger suggested that Reggie Bush should be fined for his dalliances with agents during Southern California’s 2005 season, embracing the twisted logic that the NCAA can take money away from players but can’t give them any.

While men’s football and basketball teams dominate media coverage and earn the vast majority of the money, they are only the tip of the athletic department iceberg. The so-called “revenue sports” subsidize the budgets for women’s sports teams as well as many men’s Olympic sports — from tennis to swimming and golf. Without men’s football and basketball, the vast majority of non-revenue teams would fold.

Strip away the pageantry, and the actual business model of college sports becomes clear: basketball and football players, many coming from impoverished backgrounds, are risking their best chance to get their families out of a decades-long cycle of poverty in order to fund scholarships for the children of middle and upper-class families who can afford the years of expensive training it takes to become elite performers in country-club sports.

Or as the perennially successful Kentucky basketball Coach John Calipari tells his players: “If you want to do what is best for me and my family, you will stay [in school]; if you want to do what is best for you and your family, you will go pro.”

So when faced with a system that makes them sacrifice their bodies and risk their careers to generate hundreds of millions of dollars they will never see while simultaneously preventing them from receiving the full value of their education, it should not be surprising when players start looking for alternate streams of revenue.

The way the NCAA is set up makes scandals like the one in Columbus inevitable. Debating the morality of individual coaches and players is an ultimately futile exercise; Tressel is a symptom, not a cause, of a much deeper problem.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons