There are those times when you read about the way something used to be and think, “How could it have gone on like that for so long?”
I wonder if that will someday be the case in regard to the desperately clung-to concept of “amateurism” in the two college sports that produce revenue in the larger conferences: football and men’s basketball. There is really nothing “amateur” about either one, yet the facade is fiercely defended _ by those who benefit enormously from it, and by those who wish to live in a dream world devoid of practical sense and economic reality.
Programs are punished and athletes’ reputations are tarnished because of this, and every story of the latest program “exposed” just irritates me more. Not because of the athlete who “gave into temptation” and took money from an agent. But because of the system that profits off that athlete’s talent while condemning him for wanting to do the same.
The stories keep coming. The NCAA is looking into Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina … and might as well be investigating dozens more. Southern Cal already has been severely penalized. The school has sent back the replica of Reggie Bush’s Heisman trophy and is in the process of completely disassociating itself from the former Trojan running back.
Let’s remind ourselves of the “horrible” thing that Bush is accused of doing: That he and his family accepted improper benefits from agents during his time playing for USC.
Now, if Bush’s supreme talent would have been music or acting or painting or sculpture or creating software or trading stocks, etc., it wouldn’t have made any difference how much money he earned through his skill while going to college. Millionaire Emma Watson of “Harry Potter” fame can go to Brown University and still act in amateur plays there if she so chooses. No problem.
But Bush’s talent is football, and the system is set up for a lot of people to profit from athletes like him working for drastically less than they are actually worth. Hence, they are made out to be criminals for giving into the understandable temptation of taking money from those willing to give it to them in hopes of someday cashing in on them.
Meanwhile, those who probably SHOULD be giving these athletes money won’t do it. They continue to insist that college tuition, room and board, etc., is more than enough compensation for a player such as Bush, whose performances brought in millions of dollars for USC. He was supposed to put his health on the line – let’s acknowledge how violent and dangerous a game that football at this level truly is _ so that a lot of other people could make money from his success.
With the excuse being, “Hey, he’s getting a scholarship. And if he’s good enough, he’ll make his money once he’s a professional. All he has to do is wait few years.”
Easy to say … unless it’s your talent that’s being exploited while you’re asked to wait.
I think of the operation of athletic departments at the Division I schools who play BCS football as almost an exercise in functional lunacy. Athletics directors reign over sports that are multimillion-dollar industries … as well as sports that have never and will never make a cent in revenue. Yet it’s all supposed to fit under the identical umbrella of “amateurism.”
This despite the fact that we in the United States live in a capitalistic society where the free market typically determines the worth of something or somebody. During Bush’s time at USC, I think it’s safe to say that he was the most valuable student-athlete “asset” for the school. Yet he was supposed to be seen as absolutely no different than any other student-athlete there.
And you might be saying, “Damn right! He’s no better than anybody else!” But I’m not saying he’s “better” … I’m saying he was largely responsible for bringing in a huge amount of revenue. To treat him as if that’s not true or doesn’t matter is to deny reality and create the very climate of subterfuge that results in these endless NCAA investigations, this tilting-at-windmills crusade to keep college sports “pure.” As if there’s something dirty or staining about wanting to make money from what you’re good at doing.
And what makes this all seem especially absurd right now is what we saw earlier this summer. The collegiate sports world faced the potential of enormous upheaval, but instead ended up – for now – with a series of “smaller” eruptions that altered the landscape less severely.
The college conference system as we know it wasn’t totally blown up. A group of football powerhouses didn’t break away completely from the NCAA and form their own consortium. The Pac-10 and Big Ten didn’t turn into 16-team super leagues. But there was still the thunderously loud message sent that football’s revenue potential had the power to override historical rivalries, geographic common sense and the best interests of all other sports/athletes at a school. It hasn’t happened to that extreme a degree yet … but it someday still could.
So if it wasn’t already known, it became absolutely undeniable this year: The revenue capacity of football at certain schools is staggering. Yet the young men who make that possible do not seem to me to benefit in proportion to their contribution. Which leaves a very big door open for people with money to come in to tempt them.
I’m not saying I have figured out an easy solution _ or even a complicated one. It’s admittedly a mess, a rope with a hundred knots. But the “solution” of demonizing a person with a lucrative talent for cashing in when someone is waving money in front of him … not only does it not work as policy, it’s utterly unfair.
We can point out all kinds of problematic issues with paying salaries to college athletes in revenue-producing sports, and/or allowing all student-athletes (no matter what their sport) to openly explore their own private revenue potential with agents. Passionate and powerful arguments could be made about how such practices could adversely affect team unity, coaches’ ability to discipline, the financial status and harmony of athletic departments, and the very viability of non-revenue sports.
But in “real life” after we’re out of school, don’t all people – or most of us – need to accept the fact that some in our particular organization make more money than others based on their perceived value? Can we realistically and successfully continue to keep collegiate athletics in a “bubble” where no athlete can be acknowledged as having more marketable value than others?
Is what’s going on now really a completely defensible system worth preserving? Can the NCAA, athletic directors, coaches, fans and media continue to deny economic reality and stay hellbent on insisting they’re rightfully “protecting” some utopian idea of college sports? How is there not widespread choking on self-righteous idealism?
Look, there are a lot of other journalists who have made this point for years. I’m not claiming to add anything new to the discussion. So you might wonder why someone who specializes in covering women’s sports _ which at the college level are very rarely revenue-producing – is even writing about this topic.
You might assume that I would steadfastly oppose anything that might seem to “separate” football or men’s basketball and potentially “ghetto-ize” every other sport (which means all women’s sports) in college athletics. Obviously, that’s not at all what I want to see happen.
I fervently believe college athletics is mostly about developing positive characteristics in young people and helping them get an education. And that women’s sports need special care and defense because they’ve been so long discriminated against and short-changed financially due to unvarnished sexism.
But … I’m also irritated with the refusal to simply acknowledge that football and men’s basketball long ago became semi-pro, at the very least, at the highest Division I level. I’m bothered that the collusion of older people with power resulted in the creation and protection of a system that seems to disproportionately benefit them in comparison to younger people who have little power.
Furthermore, to look at all this and not see elements of racism in it would take an astonishingly willful kind of blindness. It’s not necessarily personal racism by the people involved, but institutionalized racism – which is even more powerful and harder to eradicate. In part because people can fuel it simply by not acknowledging it exists.
I don’t know how to fix the disconnect between what most people seem to want college athletics to be and what it really is. I do think because it is “college,” the aspect of academics does have to be defended staunchly and absolutely required. But does “student-athlete” necessarily have to mean “amateur?”
Can there be a more realistic way to deal with agents than to call them pests and parasites? Couldn’t schools actually help their in-demand athletes navigate their way through finding a reputable agent and/or provide them financial advice?
You’d like to think there could be a way to do this. But I’m not holding my breath. I’m not hopeful that much will change. Rather, I am anticipating more NCAA scoldings and punishments that are usually more likely to affect people who weren’t involved with a situation than those who were. Because those who were involved have typically moved on.
And I’m expecting that it will keep bothering people who really stop to wonder how much practical sense it all makes.