Sport historians have long critiqued the “twin curses of commercialization and professionalization” in college sports. These curses are not new; they have been present from the very beginning. The first intercollegiate sporting event, a regatta between Harvard and Yale in 1852, was commercially sponsored by a railroad company. In 1855, these squads met again, but this time Harvard’s coxswain was not a student but a paid alumnus, highlighting early professionalization in athletics.
If commercialization and professionalization have been around college sports for roughly 170 years, it seems reasonable that stakeholders of athletics—faculty, athletes and administrators—might know a thing or two about these concepts. In my dissertation research, I found out, they generally do not.
Commercialization is managing an entity for the purpose of financial gain. In college sports, commercialization is evident: College sports is big business. However, when participants in my dissertation were asked to discuss how commercialization might influence the experiences of athletes, they either could not answer or asked for a definition of commercialization. Despite playing the most commercialized sport, one football player asked, “What’s commercialization?”
Others immediately turned commercialization to a conversation centered around a topic related to professionalization: name, image and likeness (NIL). An athletics administrator noted that commercialization “becomes a way to earn an income that has nothing to do with being a student or an athlete.” And one faculty member stated the influence of commercialization was “yet to be determined since NIL is still pretty new.”
NIL represents a move toward professionalization, which involves providing a group (e.g., athletes) with professional qualities, such as increased qualification requirements or compensation.
Commercialization and professionalization are being conflated by some who wield the most control of college athletics. And, usually, where there is conflation, there is confusion. My research found confusion among faculty, athletes and athletics administrators about the meaning of these terms, which are critical in understanding college athletics and improving its place in the academy.
Either stakeholders do not truly understand these concepts or stakeholders want to avoid uncomfortable conversations about money in college sports. Regardless, this perpetuates issues of racial and gender disparities, the widening gaps between the Haves and the Have Nots in big-time college sports, and athlete rights and compensation.
For almost two centuries, commercialization and professionalization have impacted education and athletics by shifting the focus away from academic values to revenue generation and power. Safeguarding academics for college athletics at institutions with elite programs will require scholars and practitioners to grapple with the differences between commercialization and professionalization.
Molly Harry is a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Virginia, studying intercollegiate athletics.