Apr 23rd, 2021 |
18: Pay for Play (Part II): 1945-1956
The period 1945 – 1956 is one of the most consequential eras in the history of college sports. The modern NCAA was born with the hiring of Walter Byers as CEO and the acquisition of legitimate, national enforcement authority. This era saw the NCAA successfully monopolize the market for televised football along with the adoption of the full athletics scholarship as a nationally uniform limit on compensation for revenue-producing athletes’ labor. These transformative milestones were the product of a perfect storm of inter-connected post-WWII events, including the GI Bill’s education benefits, enhanced communications technologies, mainstreaming commercial air travel, and the expansion of television. These societal changes fueled a Wild West recruiting environment in college football and men’s basketball leading to a national debate over the fundamental relationship between revenue-producing athletes and major universities. This debate was framed around the NCAA-driven “Sanity Code” legislation to achieve national agreement on the terms of the athletics scholarship. The Sanity Code was passed in 1948 and served as a compromise between southern schools that insisted on pure athletics scholarships and northern/midwestern schools that insisted on ostensibly merit and need-based scholarships. The regional battle lines had an undeniable racial component. They were driven by one of the most powerful dynamics in college sports: the quest to gain or avoid losing a competitive advantage in the talent acquisition market. Open defiance of the Sanity Code by southern conferences and schools led to its practical death in 1950. The ensuing five years saw a national movement towards adopting the full athletics scholarship independent of NCAA oversight. Between 1950-1952, the NCAA and Walter Byers won two crucial regulatory stand-offs that gave the NCAA legitimate national regulatory authority. The first involved the University of Pennsylvania’s and the University Notre Dame’s independent television packages in defiance of the NCAA’s claim to exclusive rights to televised college football. Under threat of member school boycott, Penn and Notre Dame capitulated to the NCAA’s power play. The second involved a Kentucky basketball point-shaving scandal through which the NCAA forced Kentucky to agree to a one-year ban on competition. The post-Sanity Code recruiting environment and the increasing adoption of the full athletics scholarship resulted in a potent threat to the evolving big-time football marketplace: workers’ compensation liability. Injured athletes contended that their scholarships amounted to contracts for hire through which they were, in reality, employees of their universities. Establishing an employer-employee relationship is a prerequisite to workers’ compensation benefits. Byers and NCAA lawyers invented the concept of the “student-athlete” to mask the true nature of the relationship between revenue-producing athletes and universities. Finally, in 1956, the NCAA and big-time universities agreed to adopt the full athletics scholarship as the single, uniform benefits exchange. This decision abandoned any rational conceptualization of amateurism and adopted open pay-for-play professionalism. In his 1995 expose on college sports— Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes—Byers said that the adoption of the full athletics scholarship in 1956 was one of the most important single events in the history of college sports.