Amateur Month

17 03 2008

It was circa dinnertime on Sunday night when a few dozen million Americans (estimated) concerned themselves with the arrangement of text upon a spiderlike series of lines. So many rushed to see where this text, carrying the names of United States college basketball teams, would sit that it caused to crash and CBS to spike, momentarily, in ratings.


And here we are again, in the time of the year we refer to as March Madness, a term not that comes with a little bit of self-examinative embarrassment (who’s mad? The games? Or us?). Enough money circulates around the Tournament every year in gambling to bail out Bear Stearns. Of course, we always think of gambling first – those harmless office pools (which, not so benignly, got Rick Neuheisel fired from his post as Washington football coach) that everybody seems to have. But we sometimes forget the infrastructure built around college athletics, and the daily, legitimized profiteering off of people who cannot immediately profit from those same talents. 


It seems exploitative. I’ve heard people refer to March Madness, without the intent of hyperbole, as modern slavery, that it’s people making money off the work of an uncompensated Other. In both cases, the uncompensated Other tends to be black. Using such logic, the argument has arisen more and more lately that these performers should be compensated for their efforts, in the same way that music majors can profit from playing gigs. But in this space, I want to defend the concept of keeping players amateurs, which, for all its inherent contradiction and hypocrisy, remains


You’ve got the basic arguments:

         Less than 1 percent of Div. I athletes will go on to play pro sports, as affirmed by those commercials where the point guard dons a lab coat and glasses.

         These people get into a number of top-tier American universities, institutions of higher learning that deny more deserving students.

         They’re already getting paid, sort of. Scholarships can offset upwards of $200 grand over four years.


But why shouldn’t the athletes get paid? Schools make a ton of money from TV rights, bowl games and the merchandise trade that accompanies all the fanfare of Tournament play, not to mention tuition that jumps up after a team makes a run (see, Gonzaga basketball; Va. Tech football when Mike Vick was there).

 Admittedly, the NCAA has made some decisions in the past that have been described as foolish, braindead, absurd – all those adjectives most often reserved for the sitting American executive branch. When Jeremy Bloom was a wide receiver and one of the best returners in the country at Colorado University, he was simultaneously one of the top skiers in the country. He was forced to decline every sponsorship offered to him for skiing, in which he did not compete in college. This year, O.J. Mayo of USC was punished for accepting free Nuggets tickets from his friend Carmelo Anthony because the tickets weren’t available to the student body as a whole.  

And the whole student-first, athlete-second thing, as we’re all pretty clear about, doesn’t work. For the lower divisions, the term might actually mean something. But when you see schools graduating 15% of their athletes, student-athlete becomes an ideal separate from reality, so far removed that it’s not even aspired-to.


I’ve heard the argument that many of these athletes don’t go to college for the sake of college, but to employ the university as a sort of professional trampoline. The minor leagues. Leave high school, show your stuff on a national stage, notch a multi-million-dollar signing bonus. Easy. But for people like this, the money’s almost guaranteed. What’s another year in college when $30 million awaits you? If it’s needed that desperately, leave early.


Further, it’s those massive contracts that chip away at the purity and passion of sport. I don’t want to overstate the purity of the sport, because what’s purity, really, but there’s a sort of rawness to college athletics – even the top-tier DI sports – that’s lost in their professional equivalents. Not to say that pro sports don’t have passion, but there’s sort of a golden parachute that comes with a standard of living enjoyed by less than 1 percent of the world.


But above all, what would payment solve? How would it work, exactly? Does anybody have any ideas?




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