Burke and the Changing Landscape of the NCAA

The NCAA and college sports are currently in a state of upheaval. Recent rulings on the Ed O’Bannon case and the attempted unionization of the football players at Northwestern, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, point to a revolution in the NCAA. This revolution could ultimately end with drastic changes in the time-honored collegiate system that produces billions of dollars in revenue and rewards its athletes with scholarships instead of paychecks, essentially fostering an unpaid labor system. Changes could be in store for the NCAA and the “amateur’ student-athletes it employs, namely the ability for the student-athletes to seek compensation for their athletic performance and likeness as well as long term medical health care. While the NCAA model isn’t likely to be fundamentally changed for a couple years to come, the uprising in college sports has just begun.  

Edmund Burke, in his article titled Reflections On the Revolution in France, outlines his beliefs of classical conservatism. His main beliefs are stooped in this idea that tradition is the most reliable basis of political thinking. Burke believe that traditions and customs have good reasons for existing as they are and provide benefits for society.

Ed O’Bannon challenged the NCAA for using his image and likeness in NCAA sponsored video games.

In its rush to overturn the old and bring in the new, Burke believed the French Revolution, and thus rapid liberal change, ruthlessly attacked traditional institutions and beliefs. Yet, institutional change can exist in Burke’s political thinking, as long as it is deliberate, incremental change based in tradition and entrenched in the ideas that have ben previously established.

Does the impending transformation of the NCAA fall in line with Burke’s idea of incremental change? If the recent Ed O’Bannon ruling and the unionization of the Northwestern football players are any indications of the future, then the majority of the changes in the NCAA will stem from court rulings. This will guarantee that the revolution will certainly be incremental and deliberate as the rulings will come slowly and over time. Yet these proposed changes will be far from traditional ideas. The push for student-athletes to have the ability to not only seek compensation for their services to the university and the NCAA but also capitalize on endorsement opportunities is a complete upheaval of the traditional intentions of the NCAA.

Former Northwestern Quarterback Kain Colter led the charge to unionize the football team.

The NCAA values itself on amateurism, and even though student-athletes can hardly be considered amateurs in today’s state of collegiate sports, allowing the athletes to be compensated would be a complete, radical upheaval of traditional ideals that Burke would never endorse.

Edmund Burke, a leader in classical conservatism.

These radical changes that are on the horizon for the NCAA could also fit into what Burke describes as “delusive plausibilities of moral politicians”. That is, the concept of paying college athletes is a valiant proposal by those who believe that student-athletes are being cheated by the NCAA. However, because Burke believes that “plausible schemes…have often shameful and lamentable consequences,” implementing compensation for the athletes and compromising the principles of the NCAA may lead to deplorably bad consequences.

Burke, as it seems clear, would not support the current uprising that is taking hold of college sports. Yet, much like the French Revolution that Burke so strongly argued against, the revolution of the college sports may not be stopped.