The NCAA defines an "amateur" student athlete as someone who "engages in a particular sport for the educational, physical, mental, and social benefits derived therefrom and to whom participation in that sport is an avocation." "Avocations" don't produce multimillion-dollar salaries for coaches and multibillion-dollar TV contracts. The economic incentives to attract superstars and keep them eligible are so strong that no minor reforms and no amount of policing will prevent athletic directors, coaches, and athletes from gaming the system.
It's time to give up the pretense. Compensate college athletes in revenue-producing sports for their work, beyond the scholarships most receive. If schools don't pay athletes, others will. They are called boosters and sports agents. Give athletes the right to market their own names and images, a right now monopolized by the NCAA and its member institutions.
The NCAA clings to "amateurism" despite the impossibility of combining amateurism with the generation of billions of dollars of revenue. Amateurism was once the Olympic ideal as well. Yet we just saw a match for the gold medal in hockey with both teams composed entirely of NHL players. The Olympic rings did not catch fire and dissolve into ashes.
It's time to admit that big-time college basketball and football are professional—the equivalent of Major League Baseball's minor leagues—and treat players accordingly. Yes, there will be problems, such as workers' compensation, health insurance, and monopoly questions. But these problems have solutions. Maintaining the fiction that these athletes are amateurs, however, is impossible.
Read why the NCAA's academic charade cheapen March Madness, by Ben Miller, policy analyst at Education Sector.