On Amateurism, Agents, and a Broken System

Not the probem.

Yesterday, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock — a man who isn’t afraid to stir up controversy — penned an article on the college athlete/agent epidemic that has been the focus of the SEC media days as the NCAA targets several of their programs. Whitlock focuses on Reggie Bush, whose acceptance of lavish gifts from agents led to major rules violations for USC and left him as the face of what is wrong with college football. His rhetoric is, to say the least, inflammatory, but I think his central point is a good one:

If anything, the rule book supporting the bogus concept of “amateur athletics” is akin to the laws that supported Jim Crow, denied women suffrage and upheld slavery.

The architect of the modern NCAA, the organization’s former president, Walter Byers, spelled out all of this in his 1997 mea culpa, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting the Student-Athlete.”

Byers wrote: “Today the NCAA Presidents Commission is preoccupied with tightening a few loose bolts in a worn machine, firmly committed to the neo-plantation belief that the enormous proceeds from college games belong to the overseers (administrators) and supervisors (coaches). The plantation workers performing in the arena may only receive those benefits authorized by the overseers.”

Reggie Bush is Kunta Kinte, a runaway slave.

The media are slave-catchers, mindless mercenaries crucifying child athletes for following the financial lead of their overseer coaches such as Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban.

I’ll stay away from the slave analogy, as Whitlock has a propensity for going over the edge to prove a point, and instead look at the central argument here — while the players and the agents who pay them are vilified (sometimes rightly so), the system that necessitates and enables these interactions escapes the wrath of the media.

In short, the players are getting screwed, while at the same time taking the brunt of the blame.

Why, you might ask, should I feel sympathy for athletes who receive a free education and the best shot at a professional career as a player in return for their ability to play a game while attending college? Several things come to mind:

  • For one, while a college scholarship is an extremely valuable commodity, the fact remains that a great deal of college football players come from lower-class or impoverished backgrounds. Having school paid for is great, but with an enormous time commitment like collegiate football and archaic NCAA rules leaving little-to-no time for earning some pocket money through a part-time job, this often isn’t enough on its own. Coming from a completely different socioeconomic background from many of these players, I can’t reconcile the thought of blaming these players for taking an agent’s handout when I do not know — and have no business knowing — the full story of the player’s background. Even through I come from a middle class background, as a student who doesn’t have to spend 20-40 hours a week as essentially an unpaid sports intern, I still could really use a few extra bucks — when I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t do the same thing as these players, it would only be hypocritical for me to malign them.
  • As we are becoming more and more aware of every day, the game of football is an extremely dangerous one — players are risking severe injury, long-term health issues, and even death when they step onto that field. While receiving a free education certainly provides a helpful safety net in the case of a player — for whatever reason — not being able to continue their career on the field after college, the fact remains that no amount of education can recoup the physical costs of playing the game. Playing football, of course, is a choice, but as I said above, many of these players come from situations where football (or another sport) is the only way to get an education — few person in their right mind are in the position to turn down the opportunity to get a free education and a shot at playing professional football because of the inherent risk involved, especially when we’re still learning about just how great that risk is.
  • The problem of maintaining pure amateurism in college football would not be as great if there was a viable alternative to playing college football, but the system in place is one where virtually the only path to the NFL (or even the Arena League) is the NCAA. While most students use their college classes as training for their future job, many college football players are simply going through the motions in order to have the chance to play at the next level. Should we be forcing these players to feign interest in a college degree when that degree has nothing to do with their future profession? It seems farcical, but we don’t blink twice when a talented player falls off the football map because of academic issues that have no bearing on their actual value on a football field. Of course, I’m not discouraging players from getting an education — having a fallback for a sport as brutal as football is very important — but the notion that attending college should be a requirement for playing pro ball makes little sense to me.
  • My main issue — especially when the NCAA, the schools, the athletic departments, and the coaches rake in absurd sums of money — is that there is literally no other profession where a person of any age cannot cash in on their talents if there is a market for those talents. An art student at Michigan would not be banned from painting because he/she sold some pieces at a local gallery — I would hope that would be encouraged, in fact. I’m not (necessarily) advocating for every NCAA player to get paid, but when I see hundreds of students arrive at Michigan Stadium wearing the same jersey and number as Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson, for example, just without the name (that is so clearly implied — it’s not a coincidence that the jerseys featured at the M Den are #5 and #16), well, I don’t see how that’s not making money from a player’s image without giving the player his due. If you’re good enough to have a demand for your likeness, you should see the rewards of that demand — last time I checked, this is still America, the land where (in everything but college sports) we’re encouraged to freely cash in on our talents to the best of our ability.

What is there to be done about this system? I’d be lying if I said I had the answers, but I think the first thing we have to let go of is the concept that the most important thing in college sports is a totally level playing field in which everyone is purely an amateur. It has never been that way, and never will be, and the fact that the NCAA continues to operate as if we’re anywhere close to that is a huge reason why the system is so broken.

So, do I think Reggie Bush is a modern-day Kunta Kinte? No. But he is the posterboy for what is wrong with collegiate sports, and he isn’t the problem. That alone shows how far we’re missing the mark when we look for someone to blame as these scandals arise.

  1. Mikey said:

    Great post Ace, definitely opened my eyes to a lot about the whole situation.

  2. Shane said:

    Very well written article Ace. In my heart of hearts I also agree with pretty much everything you are saying. My only concern about paying athletes is that it is unfair to the non-athlete student. I, like you, am a history major. I am not sure about the great university of Michigan, but at the university I attend our course load is so intense, that many students can not hold down a true part time job if they want to truly study their subject matter properly. Meanwhile, and unlike the stud athletes, the students still have to come up with the money for their education. I think its great that the athletes have their education paid for, and I am not arguing against it, but I think it becomes absurd for an athlete to get paid money for playing football at a non-professional level. Budding historians working through their academic coursework do not get paid money before they have their respective professional careers, why should an athlete?

  3. Ace Anbender said:

    Thanks for the kind words, guys.

    Shane — To keep it short, my argument for paying college players boils down to this: we’re willing to pay to watch them play, even if it is at a non-professional level, to the point where they are fueling a multi-billion-dollar business. Doesn’t the fact that an industry is build around them make them, at some level, professionals? To use the art student analogy again, this would be like buying a piece of art made by a Michigan student, but instead of the money going to the student, you would be paying the School of Art & Design, because the student needs to maintain their “amateur painting status” if they want to stay eligible for the Art & Design school. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but it’s how I feel.

    Also, as history majors, we’re not exactly putting our bodies on the line every day — I’ve never taken a blind-side hit while sitting in a lecture. And again, these athletes are doing football as an extra-curricular activity, on TOP of being normal students, which is why I think it’s tough to make the comparison to paying a history student for doing their coursework.

  4. Shane said:

    True, the closest thing as a history major I have gotten to a blindsided tackle was being in a heated discussion on a topic in the subject of WWII. But you do make some great points.

    I also wanted to clear something up too. I re-read my comment and noticed one of my sentences could easily be taken the wrong way. When I said the “great University of Michigan” I really meant that. I did not mean it to be a condescending remark. I hope you didn’t think it was a patronizing remark. After all, I am a fan of both Michigan and your blog.

    • Ace Anbender said:

      No offense taken, Shane. In fact, like how Buckeyes refer to their school as “The Ohio State University,” we might have to counter by referring to our beloved U-M as “The Great University of Michigan.”

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