A Smart Debate About Amateurism in March Madness

The New York Times has assembled many different voices -- including Bill Walton, and a favorite basketball writer in Stephen Danley, who until recently played for Penn -- to open once again (sing it with me now -- you know the words!) the debate about whether elite college athletes can really be considered amateurs.

There are lots of good viewpoints. I'll quote two cranks, because they're the most interesting.

Allen Sack is a business professor at the University of New Haven and wrote the "Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete's Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism." He says:

Should the billions of dollars generated by March Madness trickle down to the players whose exceptional skills put fans in the seats and keep them riveted to their television sets? The money already trickles down in the form of one-year renewable scholarships that are essentially "contracts for hire." Calling these athletes amateurs is absurd. ... Given the N.C.A.A.'s abandonment of time-honored amateur principles, no good reason exists for preventing athletes from engaging in the same entrepreneurial activities as their celebrity coaches. Big-time college athletes should be able to endorse products, get paid for speaking engagements and be compensated for the use of their likenesses on licensed products. They should be allowed to negotiate an actual contract with the N.B.A. as part of a final project in a finance class, and have an agent. These athletes are working their way through college by playing professional college sports. It is time to accept this reality and move on.

William C. Dowling, meanwhile, is Rutgers University literature professor, who wrote "Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University." He harps on a less common, but I think, important theme -- perhaps elite athletics can impair a university's ability to be a place of learning?:

You couldn't ask for a better example than "March Madness,” the media spectacle that turns American universities into marketing vehicles for advertisers like Coca Cola and General Motors. For four weeks every spring, lower-level professional athletes wearing college jerseys are seen running back and forth on the television screen between the commercials. Meanwhile, sportswriters and T.V. commentators maintain the solemn pretense that these are college students, young people who came to university to study Wittgenstein and learn medieval history and master the intricacies of R.N.A. replication. The N.C.A.A. grinds out public relations hype about "Academic All Americans” and "academic progress ratings.” And the public, as though mesmerized, never raises an eyebrow. We shouldn't be worrying about exploited athletes -- few really are. Nor should we be worried about steering T.V. money to academics. Real colleges and universities -- New York University, say, or Harvard, or the University of Chicago -- have ways of paying academic costs without prostituting themselves to commercialized athletics. The solution is to end the prostitution itself.