By Aonghus O Maicin
On Wednesday week last, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were strong-armed into a major policy change, hastened by a US Supreme Court decision which stated the organisation could no longer continue banning student athletes from earning money on the back of their sporting careers.
The NCAA has always stringently enforced the policy, claiming athletes were first and foremost students and viewing the amateur ethos as something sacred, not too dissimilar to the GAA’s stance of amateurism. But for years the policy has been the subject of scrutiny and indignation, the pursuits of student-athletes regularly compared to that of slave labour as other stakeholders reaped the financial benefits of soaring popularity. The removal of the anachronistic policy however had been creeping closer in recent years, last week’s ruling from the highest court in the land proving a fatal blow.
“Traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his opinion of the ruling.
But while such a decision must be welcomed, it must also be noted that the NCAA didn’t exactly have an epiphany on the matter and, had they been offered a choice, they most likely would’ve continued to see no issue with growing their billion-dollar enterprise while taking advantage of young people with sporting ambitions.
For those unfamiliar with the scene in the United States, the NCAA isn’t a governing body for competitions of a similar stature to the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon cups. Collegiate sport is a behemoth in the country. The success and popularity of the annual March Madness tournament for example, which sees the country’s best college basketball teams compete to determine the national champion, rewarded the NCAA with a $10.8 billion 14-year broadcasting contract in 2010. In 2016, an $8.8 billion eight-year extension was signed. Colleges such as Michigan, Penn State, Alabama and more attract average attendances of over 100,000 to their football games, a lot more than NFL teams can cater for, and while student athletes toil in their respective arenas free of charge, coaches and administrators rake in multimillion-dollar salaries.
The inequality of it all has been highlighted ad nauseam, some of the most famous names in American sports falling foul of the much-maligned law throughout the early years of their careers. NFL star Cam Newton was embroiled in an eligibility controversy during his college days after his representatives were accused of attempting to shop him around. Former NFL running back Reggie Bush was forced to return his Heisman Trophy, the accolade awarded to college football’s player of the year, after he was found to have received benefits.
As all of this unravelled over the last week, GAA administrators may have raised an eyebrow given the association’s stance on professionalism. The days of vigilance committees are thankfully confined to the past, but flagrant disregard of the rules shouldn’t just be shrugged off as part and parcel of how business is conducted. Not when the rule in question doesn’t have to exist and is clearly nothing but an heirloom that represents the association’s only link to the objectives of its founding members.
Contrary to what may seem popular belief, retaining an amateur status is not an unwritten rule.
The rulebook is in fact unambiguous:
And the penalty of crossing that line in the sand: a 24-week suspension or expulsion.
Unlike the NCAA, the GAA’s intentions were, and perhaps remain, well-meaning. But in the 21st century when the GAA is at the forefront of taking advantage of commercial opportunities and is leaving rival sporting organisations in the ha’penny place, those intentions have become idealistic. An organisation cannot retain an amateur ethos when it engages in multimillion-euro television deals and embraces sponsorship opportunities from multinational companies.
There is no debate about whether or not the GAA should remain an amateur organisation at the moment, mainly because few are willing to provide arguments for professionalism over amateurism, this columnist included. Meanwhile, the dichotomy between the well-off and those less fortunate in the organisation has never been more pronounced and it isn’t helped by a failure to face up to the fact that coaches and players are benefiting financially on the back of their success. The association and its membership is thus at a crossroads: It can attempt to recapture that ethos by enforcing the rules and abandoning commercial relationships or it can accept that amateurism was regrettably abandoned a long time ago, remove the rule from the rulebook and attempt to create a viable future with resources more evenly distributed.
The caveat that professionalism is unachievable is of course a fair point, but it also neglects the reality that the association is already steaming in that direction, while hiding behind an obsolete rule. There may be no solution and there may simply be no avoiding the impracticality of the direction the organisation is heading in, but the chances of solving the predicament surely greatly increases when the reality is accepted.
The unwelcome truth of the matter is that the debate shouldn’t be on the question of whether or not the association should remain amateur. It should be based around the question of what’s the best way forward given the amateur ethos has withered. All other issues of the day – championship structures, fixtures calendar, the county-club dynamic – are doomed to remain unresolved until a solution to the true topic du jour is addressed: how to create a functioning semi-professional or professional environment within the game that is fair and workable.
The solutions alas won’t be found in this column. And they may not be found at all. But there can be no shying away from the most important debate concerning the association, and the one with which everyone is reluctant to engage.