photo illustration of Walter Camp
photo illustration by dbking

Paying college athletes? It has a history

To fully understand the history of football, and that of the NCAA and its countless pay for play scandals, it is imperative to know who Walter Camp is.

Walter Camp, also known as “The Father of American Football” made his first impact on the game while he was an undergraduate at Yale University. During his days as a student-athlete at Yale he was credited with a number of rule changes that redefined the game of football. These included the line of scrimmage, the 11-man team, and the modern system of downs. Camp left Yale in 1882 to work for the New Haven Clock Company, but returned in 1888 and to split time between coaching and working. His dedication to the game is further displayed through his participation in every rules convention or committee until 1911.

 But “The Father of American Football” is also considered by some to be the father of a much more controversial side of football: pay for play. During his time at Yale he had access to a $100,000 slush fund, about 3 million in today's dollars. He used this money to import players for key games, and he also allowed some of his players to attend school and live in dorms for free. So while Walter Camp gave us the football we all know and love, he also started a practice of paying college athletes which lies at the heart of many of college sports’ greatest scandals.

The NCAA was founded in response to growing concerns over the safety of collegiate football, but the safety of football players was not the only issue facing the NCAA in the early 20th century. As college sports became more and more popular in the 1920s and 1930s, money started flowing into schools around the country, especially to the schools that won. Schools realized that the more they won the more money they made, causing recruiting to become more important than ever before. 

In response to the growing commercialization of college sports, the NCAA enacted rules to try and uphold the integrity of recruitment, but in the end it was not able to keep up with the growing popularity and demand.

Payments to athletes got so out of hand that in 1939 freshmen on the football team at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than the upperclassmen. The strike was successful and the freshman gained equal pay.

Scandals like this continued to plague the NCAA, and in 1948 the NCAA enacted what was known as the Sanity Code, which was designed to limit the compensation of student athletes to academic scholarships, and to punish violators with a scheduled boycott, what today is known as a “death penalty,” a complete suspension of an academic program. 

Despite the potential punishment, in 1950 seven schools, who became known as the “sinful seven,” admitted to violating the sanity code. The fate of those schools would be decided at the 44th annual convention. During the vote, the schools received less than the two thirds majority needed for expulsion, and in the end received no punishment. Many of the delegates that voted against expulsion believed that enforcement should be left to the conferences or the schools themselves. The NCAA realized the sanity code would not be effective and repealed it in 1951. To replace the sanity code the NCAA created the Committee of Infractions to continue the enforcement of their strict pay for play policies, which limited compensation to only athletic scholarships. This new committee gave the NCAA a broader sanctioning authority and the first penalties against major football programs came in 1953 against Notre Dame and Arizona State.


While all of the “sinful seven” were able to avoid the so called “death penalty,” the SMU football team was not as lucky. In the seasons leading up to 1987, SMU football had received five different probation penalties and had been found guilty of paying their players. But in 1987, they were caught paying players again, making them a repeat violator, and therefore subject to the NCAA Bylaw, otherwise known as the “death penalty,” which was indeed handed to them. 

SMU football received a ban from playing in the 1987 season, a loss of 55 scholarships over the course of the next four years, and an extension of their initial probation period to 1990. This cripled the SMU football program, which still hasn’t reached the same level of success as it had in the 80s. This has been the one and only time the NCAA has handed down the “death penalty,” and it will most likely remain the one and only time, because many consider the damage done to SMU to be grossly unfair. 

Even after seeing the punishment handed down to SMU, schools continued to violate the NCAA’s policies regarding pay for play. Over the past few decades there have been a number of scandals involving schools throughout the country. But not all of these scandals involved football players. In fact, one of the most recent scandals, which was uncovered in 2019, involved men's basketball. In what has become known as the Adidas men’s basketball scandal, the FBI found that high school prospects were being given large sums of money from Adidas to commit to Adidas sponsored schools. They also found that a number of high profile coaches had been paid to persuade their players to sign with certain financial advisors upon turning pro.

As a result of this scandal, the NCAA decided to make changes to its amateurism bylaws. Prior to these changes, men's college basketball players could not use an agent to help them decide if going pro was the right decision or not, and if they did decide to go pro, which brand they should sign with. This was a major decision for those athletes as those who declared for the NBA draft, but who then went undrafted were not eligible to return to school. The new rules, which took effect in 2019, allow for these athletes to enter the draft, go undrafted and then return to school, maintaining their amateur status. Furthermore, the players may hire an agent to help make their decision on whether or not they should go pro. However, if the player goes undrafted they must terminate their relationship with the agent. This makes the agent exception available to athletes in three sports: men’s hockey, men’s baseball, and now men’s basketball. 

So where does the issue of college athletes go from here? It’s hard to tell, but with pressure to pay college athletes mounting, it will continue to be the topic of conversation for many; and if it’s anything like the past, it’s going to be a wild ride.


By Mike Swingle

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