Amateurism in College Sports: An Evolutionary Tale from Past to Present

November 29, 2023

Amateurism in college sports has been an integral part of the collegiate athletic landscape for over a century. The concept of amateurism in the context of college sports is primarily defined and enforced by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). The NCAA establishes eligibility requirements that student-athletes must meet to maintain their amateur status and compete in college athletics.

Amateurism is closely related to eligibility for athletes- to participate in college sports student-athletes must maintain their amateur status, which means they cannot receive compensation beyond the value of their scholarships and related educational expenses. If a student-athlete were to accept payment for their athletic performance or endorsements, they risk losing their eligibility to compete in NCAA-sanctioned events.

Increased Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) opportunities for student-athletes could potentially challenge the current definition of amateurism. As NIL rights expand and athletes have more opportunities to profit from their image and likeness, it blurs the line between amateur and professional status. While the NCAA has introduced NIL regulations to allow student-athletes to benefit from their NIL rights, concerns arise about whether these changes could ultimately lead to a reevaluation of the traditional concept of amateurism in college sports.

The Birth of Amateurism: Early Roots in College Sports

The roots of amateurism in college sports can be traced back to the late 19th century when collegiate athletics first began to take shape in the United States.  College athletics in the United States finds its origins in the 19th century when informal sports activities like rowing and track and field gained popularity among students. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that organized and intercollegiate competitions started to formalize. These early sporting traditions evolved into the collegiate athletics landscape we recognize today.

In the early 1800s, American universities primarily focused on academics, with few organized sports programs. Students engaged in informal athletic competitions, including rowing, boxing, and track and field. The mid-19th century saw the rise of intercollegiate competition, with events like the 1852 rowing competition between Harvard and Yale marking the beginning of organized sports contests between institutions. The NCAA was established in 1906 to regulate and oversee collegiate athletics, initially with a focus on football safety. College football played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of college athletics, fostering traditions and rivalries. 

Over time, college sports programs expanded to include various sports, becoming an integral part of campus life and community engagement.  At that time, the idealized concept of the “student-athlete” emerged as a defining principle. The term “amateur” referred to someone who participated in sports for the love of the game, without financial incentives or the pursuit of monetary gain. Collegiate sports were seen as an extension of education and personal development, emphasizing the holistic development of students.

The Early Stalwarts of Amateurism

The early proponents of amateurism believed that college athletes should primarily be students, with athletic pursuits serving as a secondary and purely recreational activity. They argued that student-athletes should not receive any form of compensation for their athletic abilities, as it could jeopardize their amateur status. It was a time when participating in college sports was considered an honor, and athletes were expected to uphold the values of sportsmanship, fair play, and amateurism.

The Evolution of Amateurism in College Sports

As college sports continued to grow in popularity and financial interests expanded, the boundaries of amateurism became blurred. Student-athletes faced limitations on receiving any form of compensation, even for their own image and likeness. This often meant that athletes were unable to capitalize on their fame, while universities and sports organizations generated substantial revenue from their athletic endeavors. For example, a star quarterback couldn’t earn money from signing autographs or endorsing products, even if those opportunities were available.

The mid-20th century saw the rise of televised college sports, further magnifying the challenges of maintaining the traditional concept of amateurism. Universities and organizations began generating substantial revenue from broadcasting rights, and critics argued that the athletes, whose efforts fueled the popularity of these events, were being denied their fair share. This debate laid the groundwork for future discussions on the rights and compensation of college athletes.

The Turning Point: NIL and the Modern Era

The landscape of college sports underwent a seismic shift in July 2021 when the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) announced significant changes to its rules on NIL. These changes marked a profound departure from traditional amateurism, allowing student-athletes to profit from their NIL rights. Athletes could now engage in endorsements, merchandise sales, and various commercial opportunities, opening up new possibilities for financial gain.

The impact of NIL reform was both immediate and profound. Across the nation, student-athletes eagerly embraced their newfound rights, ushering in a new era where their athletic talents and personal brands could be monetized. The rule changes unlocked a world of possibilities, and student-athletes wasted no time in exploring these avenues.

One of the most visible and exciting developments was the surge in endorsement deals between student-athletes and major brands. Suddenly, college athletes found themselves in partnerships with companies that recognized the value of their influence and appeal. Star athletes became de facto brand ambassadors, representing everything from athletic apparel to fast-food chains, technology companies, and more. These endorsement deals not only provided financial benefits but also elevated the profiles of student-athletes, giving them a taste of the celebrity endorsements typically associated with professional athletes.

With social media playing an increasingly significant role in modern society, student-athletes leveraged their online presence to monetize their NIL rights. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube became powerful tools for connecting with fans and attracting sponsorships. Student-athletes started generating income through sponsored posts, sharing insights into their training regimens, and offering a behind-the-scenes look into their lives as both students and athletes. This ability to turn their personal brand into a source of revenue was a game-changer, empowering athletes to build their financial futures while still in college.

Beyond endorsement deals and social media, student-athletes could now capitalize on their athletic success in novel ways. Merchandise sales and licensing agreements allowed them to profit from their likeness appearing on jerseys, apparel, and collectibles. The sale of autographed memorabilia, once strictly prohibited, became a legitimate source of income. This newfound financial freedom not only rewarded athletes for their hard work on the field but also gave them a stake in their own success.

Collegiate football players like Keon Coleman of Florida State University and Jalen Milroe of Alabama are navigating a new era where they embody a professional-like status, albeit within the framework of the amateurism model. These athletes are leveraging their personal brand and skills to host sponsored camps, mirroring the activities of their professional counterparts. The landscape of collegiate sports is evolving, with players embracing entrepreneurial opportunities that were once confined to the professional realm, signaling a paradigm shift in how we perceive and define amateurism in the modern collegiate athlete’s journey. 

The NIL reforms didn’t just provide financial opportunities; they represented a fundamental shift in the way college athletics was perceived and operated. Student-athletes were no longer seen solely as amateurs but as individuals with valuable assets—their names, images, and likenesses. This shift sparked conversations about fair compensation, athlete empowerment, and the evolving relationship between universities, athletes, and the world of commercial sports.

Challenges and Controversies

The established definition of amateurism faces potential challenges from various sources, including legal disputes, the evolution of state laws, and changing public attitudes that increasingly favor greater compensation for student-athletes. These factors may trigger deliberations within the NCAA and the exploration of potential revisions to the existing framework governing amateurism in college sports.

While the loosening of NIL restrictions was celebrated as a victory for student-athletes, it also raised complex challenges that required careful consideration. Many have questioned the potential implications on various fronts, including competitive balance, athlete exploitation, and the role of universities in guiding and regulating these newfound opportunities.

In a recent legal move, former Colorado football student-athlete Alex Fontenot has initiated a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and power conferences, alleging that the NCAA’s rules prohibiting athletes from receiving compensation violate antitrust laws. The suit, as reported by On3’s Eric Prisbell, contends that the notion of “amateurism” has always been a fallacy, and the current state of college athletics has unequivocally exposed the weakness of the NCAA’s amateurism argument. Fontenot’s lawsuit challenges the status quo, asserting, “Just as the schools compete for coaches by paying higher salaries, they would also compete for athletes by paying higher compensation.”

The lawsuit underscores the stark financial disparities within college athletics, pointing out that NCAA conferences and member schools are generating billions in revenue, yet athletes see none of it. Fontenot’s legal action may mark a turning point in the ongoing debate over the compensation of student-athletes, potentially reshaping the landscape of college sports and addressing the longstanding issues of fairness and equity.

Additionally, one of the foremost concerns arising from the advent of NIL rights is the potential impact on competitive balance within college sports. With student-athletes now able to secure lucrative endorsement deals, there’s a worry that wealthier programs and institutions may have a competitive advantage in recruiting top talent. Smaller schools and less affluent athletic programs could find it challenging to compete for recruits, potentially leading to a widening gap in talent distribution.

While the ability to profit from NIL rights is empowering for student-athletes, it also exposes them to potential exploitation. There’s a concern that some individuals or entities, including unscrupulous agents and businesses, may attempt to take advantage of inexperienced college athletes. Safeguarding the interests and well-being of student-athletes is a critical aspect of navigating this new landscape. Universities and governing bodies face the task of providing education and resources to help athletes make informed decisions about endorsements and business relationships.

The introduction of NIL rights has prompted ongoing debates about the very concept of amateurism in college sports. Traditional notions of amateurism, rooted in a time when college athletes were expected to compete solely for the love of the game, are evolving. These debates are centered on defining the appropriate boundaries and limitations of NIL rights. Questions arise about what types of deals are ethically sound and conducive to the integrity of college sports.

As college athletics grapples with these challenges and uncertainties, it is clear that the landscape has entered a period of transformation. Universities and the NCAA are tasked with striking a balance between empowering student-athletes to benefit from their NIL rights and maintaining the core values of college sports. Developing guidelines, providing educational resources, and establishing oversight mechanisms are crucial steps in ensuring that the newfound opportunities of NIL rights are harnessed responsibly and ethically.

The Future of Amateurism in College Sports

The evolving landscape of college sports and the shift toward embracing NIL rights signal a new era in collegiate athletics. It poses fundamental questions about the definition of amateurism and its place in the modern sporting world. As we look ahead, the role of amateurism in college sports is likely to continue evolving, influenced by the changing dynamics of sports, education, and commerce.

The future promises to be both challenging and full of exciting opportunities for student-athletes, universities, and sports enthusiasts alike. As the concept of amateurism adapts to the realities of modern college athletics, it’s clear that we are witnessing a transformative period—one that empowers student-athletes and recognizes their right to benefit from their hard-earned success.

Amateurism in college sports has come a long way since its inception, adapting to the shifting sands of time and culture. The recent changes in NIL regulations reflect a recognition of the need to empower student-athletes and address the complexities of modern collegiate athletics. As we witness this transformative period in college sports, it’s clear that the concept of amateurism is evolving, and the future promises to be both challenging and full of exciting opportunities for student-athletes, universities, and sports enthusiasts alike. This shift towards embracing student-athlete’s commercial opportunities has fundamentally changed the financial landscape of college sports and created new opportunities for athletes to capitalize on their hard work and dedication to their sport