Student Athletes or Student Employees? Talking Amateurism at Seton Hall

Amateurism- A word that has now become a main talking point surrounding collegiate and professional sports. Amateurism is a phrase that has journalists, media members, players, fans, and even coaches debating over what the phrase really means. Are our collegiate athletes “amateurs”? These athletes that produce millions in TV deals and ticket revenue for their schools; they are “amateurs”? Some say they most certainly are, while others say that these athletes are treated as “employees” even though they do not receive a dime for their work besides compensation for tuition. Some think that this compensation is indeed enough, while many fans and coaches disagree. At the Sports Business and media Ethics Symposium at Seton Hall University on Tuesday afternoon, this topic was heavily debated and discussed by a panel of professionals from all different backgrounds for over an hour.

The first ten minutes of the discussion were spent reflecting Coach K’s (Mike Krzyzewski) comments in an interview a few weeks earlier regarding the “one and done” rule and how the NCAA’s process is not efficient.

The link to Coach K’s story can be found here. In this press conference, Coach K mentions that the NCAA is not ready for the one-and-done rule to end the NBA to change the minimum age eligible to be drafted from 19 to 18. This a rule change that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (Who also spoke at the Symposium) said is in the works with the owners and the NBAPA for the next CBA. The Commissioner hinted at this rule change and mentioned that it might be coming in the next 2-3 seasons. The commissioner gave his take on the subject, “With the one-and-done rule, at the end of the day we’re talking about only 10 guys. We’d be better allowing these young men to come directly into the league.” He also mentioned that the majority of people who saw Duke Freshman star Zion Williamson blow out his shoe were worried for him because he was still considered an “amateur” and did not want him to lose out on professional opportunities due to an injury. Renowned sports lawyer Jeffrey Mishkin had this to say about that topic later on during the panel discussion, “Injuries happen all the time and these injuries should not be the basis of policy.” It is interesting to hear from someone who looks at this situation from a position of law and not just emotion and looking at what’s best for the businesses.

The conversation shifted to the topic of the payment of collegiate players, and the different thoughts and ideas concerning the idea of “amateurism” and the term “student athletes”. The panel discussed this topic right until the conclusion, with all members having some interesting points. Terri Jackson, Director of operations for the WNBPA shared some personal insight since her son was just one of the one-and-done athletes last season at Michigan State.

“When my son was in high school, there were people meeting him outside the bus with stacks of white photo paper. They would have him autograph these pieces of paper, and then go print a picture of him to use to sell along with the autograph”

This was very interesting to hear from first-hand experience since most people do not know what it is like to be a highly-recruited collegiate athlete. But this seemed to bring up the question that was brought up so many times in this discussion, “If others can profit off a collegiate player’s name or likeness, then why can’t that player be paid for his/her own image/likeness?

Russel Okung of the San Diego Chargers (also VP of NFL Players Union) had some interesting ideas about the payment of collegiate athletes along with his opinion on the term “student-athlete”.

“The term student athlete blows my mind away. Colleges don’t select students from the student body, they are sought out as an athlete first. What we see in collegiate sports is restricted wages we call scholarships. Students are working 50-hour work weeks essentially. Students can find opportunities such as tutoring as well as other platforms to grow, so why can’t players?”

He mentions that all of these schools make so much money off the athletes (jersey sales, TV deals, sponsorships), and it seems like these athletes are more employees who don’t receive proper earnings rather than “student athletes.” He also talks about how players deserve basic rights and freedoms that it seemed to him that they were not getting. A player’s perspective was very neat to hear during this panel discussion.


Ken Belson of The New York Times brought up some good points regarding the term “amateurism” and the compensation of players.

To Russell’s point, Ken said that “Amateurism to me sounds like free work. I’ve seen players scrounge for food and money during the NCAA tournament”

Ken also brings up an interesting point regarding the payment of players. “People get caught up with the difference between compensation and paying the players, thinking that players should just get a cut of whatever the school makes. There are other ways to compensate players without paying them such as a trust fund or health care in order to make it seem like the players are not getting paid even though they are being compensated in some other way”.

This seems to be something that the NCAA is not thinking about quite yet. Russell Okung mentioned that “someone needs to be there to represent these NCAA athletes and maybe these things could be a reality”. I think Russell hit the nail on the head. Without any representation, how will these athletes receive the programs or compensation that everyone seems to believe that the athletes deserve?

Before concluding, Jeffrey Mishkin explained to the audience why the NCAA is not paying its athletes, and why the NCAA might not pay its athletes in the near future.

“Amateurism is used just to draw a distinction between professional and collegiate sports. The NCAA exists to maintain this distinction. Under the antitrust laws we’re looking at this case from the consuming public. The public has a choice of professional sports or collegiate sports to watch, which the Supreme Court ruled as legal and pro-competitive”

When challenged regarding this distinction, Mishkin explained, “The athletes you are watching in the NCAA tournament are not the best players in the world. In fact, you’re watching a minor league sport that grips the country in a way that no other minor league sport does”. Now while this may be true, this “minor league sport” makes more than any other league sport in the country, and besides tuition compensation, the “student-athletes” do not see a dime of that. Amateurs?

The final question was asked before the panel concluded, and everyone (besides Jeffrey for legal purposes) answered the same way. The question was “How soon can we expect to start seeing the payment of collegiate athletes in the NCAA”

The answer, “About five years.” So around 2023. This was the unanimous response. We will see if this unfolds the way that these professionals say it will. But until then, these athletes are just “amateurs”.