Commentary

Fix for NCAA violations: Legalize 'em!

Amateurism doesn't work and never has, so let's give up on it once and for all

Originally Published: July 26, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Special to ESPN.com

The coaches are blaming the agents. The agents are blaming, well, other agents. Writers are slamming the coaches, the players and pretty much the whole freaking system. From Reggie Bush's return-to-sender USC Heisman Trophy replica to Nick Saban's unintentional demonstration that analogizing ain't easy to what seems like an endless stream -- but is probably less than a dozen, tops! -- of NCAA investigations, the college football world is up in arms over athletes receiving improper goodies. And just about everyone thinks the answer is to get tough, crack down, put more cops on the pool party beat and more teeth into enforcing the stone tablet commandment that players shall not extend an open palm, unless said palm is receiving a handoff.

Me? I think if the powers-that-be want to clean up America's other national pastime -- the NFL generally doesn't play on Saturdays, after all -- they should reverse field. Go the other way.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonReggie Bush's Heisman Trophy wouldn't be so controversial right now if the NCAA would just stop clinging to an outdated sense of amateurism.

Get rid of amateurism altogether.

Understand: I'm not saying give the players salaries. That probably isn't financially feasible, so long as men's football and basketball pay the freight for every other college sport. No, what I'm arguing is that intercollegiate athletics would be far better off if it stopped demonizing and criminalizing players receiving cash and gifts from anyone dumb enough willing to fork them over.

That means permitting Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus to reportedly attend an agent's South Beach summer party, all expenses paid. That means letting former Florida offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey allegedly pocket a cool $100,000 from an agent's representative. It even means allowing an ex-con-turned-wannabe-sports-marketer such as Lloyd Lake to give Bush a Chevy Impala. With -- the horror! -- custom rims.

Guess what? All of the above happened. Allegedly. And the Republic is still standing.

I probably sound flippant. Au contraire. I'm dead serious. Even though what I'm proposing puts me in intellectual league with … Kim Kardashian. Fact is, we live in a relatively free society with relatively free markets. (Er, unless you're a large investment bank that made idiotic side bets on garbage mortgage bonds.) As such, why subject young athletes to a matrix of rules and restrictions we don't apply to musicians, actors or other entertainers?

Amateurism is misguided. Flat-out dumb. It creates far more problems than it solves.

Let's break it down.

Philosophically speaking, amateurism is malarkey, about as credible as the Tooth Fairy. The Victorian-era English aristocrats who came up with the concept ascribed it to the ancient Greeks, who supposedly competed for nothing more than glory, honor and olive wreaths.

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
AP Photo/Dave MartinWhy, really, should the NCAA care whether Marcell Dareus went to a pool party?

The only problem? History and the legend don't match. Modern archeology suggests that the ancient Olympics were rife with spoils. Think prize money, prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments. According to Olympic historian Tony Perottet, one Games winner even parlayed his victory into a senatorial seat in Athens. Indeed, the ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for amateur, and the closest term -- idiotes -- needs no translation.

Had Bush won the Heisman in 540 B.C., and then received a rent-free, 3,002-square foot home from Michael Michaels, the Greeks wouldn't have reacted with sanctimonious outrage; they would have wondered why the house wasn't bigger.

Moreover, amateurism's real roots are decidedly un-American. Remember those English aristocrats? Heirs to the very system we fought a revolutionary war against? They scoffed at the lower class habit of -- gasp! -- paid manual labor. More to the point, they didn't want to compete on the fields of play against the unwashed, farm- and factory-strong masses, who were believed to have an unfair physical advantage.

Well, duh.

Solution? Cast pay-for-play as morally impure. Keep the riff-raff out. English universities and athletic clubs happily adopted the idea; across the pond, Yale and Harvard copied Oxford and Cambridge, giving us both the seeds of our world-class secondary education system and the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that muddles college sports to this day.

To put things another way: Nobody says it's somehow corrupt and insidious for Jodie Foster to receive film residuals while attending Yale. Or even for physical education students to earn a few bucks for appearing in Playboy's "Girls of the SEC" issue. (So we've heard). Buy Bush's folks airplane tickets, on the other hand, and it's time to alert the National Guard.

Why? Because some 19th-century fop didn't want to row crew against a grubby coal miner?

Please. Even the modern Olympics gave up the amateurism ghost decades ago. Heck, if we're going to model college sports around fake impressions of classical antiquity, we might as well end the BCS title game by releasing the Kraken. In full 3D glory.

[+] EnlargeBomar
AP Photo/Dave WeaverRhett Bomar could play football and make money for Oklahoma, but wasn't allowed to earn anything from a car dealership job?

Amateurism's proponents often argue -- eloquently but rather mysteriously -- that athletes getting paid somehow compromises the academic missions of our schools. Um, no. And that's without mentioning the fact that running a multimillion-dollar enterprise of de facto minor league football and basketball teams that essentially serve as uniformed billboards has exceedingly little to do with the curation and advancement of human knowledge.

But we'll save that for another column.

Anyway, think it through. Cheating on a test compromises academics. Cutting class does the same. So does staying eligible by taking a dubious course titled "The Prevention and Management of Premenstrual Syndrome." (Where have you gone, Isaiah Rider?)

But making money? Really? Plenty of college students work -- at campus jobs, no less -- and still make the honor roll. Plenty of college professors write best-selling books and continue to remain good classroom teachers. Plenty of college coaches profit from gargantuan contracts and shoe company lapel pins and eponymous television shows … and still manage to add whatever educational value they're adding.

Meanwhile, former Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar earns thousands of dollars for a no-show job at a local car dealership and is booted from his team. Why? Should that really concern the University of Oklahoma, which ought to be worried about securing federal agricultural research grants? Or should it maybe, just maybe, concern, say, the IRS?

(Side note: Drop the hammer on every college student with a plum or sweetheart job, and enrollment will plummet like interest rates. Which is also fodder for another column.)

As a practical matter, amateurism's raison d'Ítre seems to be four-fold: (a) keep college sports' recruiting playing field relatively level by acting as a sort of salary cap, preventing bidding wars and/or "Lord of the Flies;" (b) give coaches maximum leverage over players who, well, don't have the financial wherewithal to pull an Albert Haynesworth; (c) professional sports are taxed, educational institutes are not; (d) provide an in-turn raison d'Ítre for the bloated NCAA rulebook and the even more bloated NCAA bureaucracy. Only here are the things:

• On the first point, the horse hasn't left the barn; the horse was never in the barn -- or even the same continent -- to begin with. Can have-not University of Dayton recruit the same class of player as ultra-luxe Ohio State? Does the name Sam Gilbert ring a bell?

[+] EnlargeWe Want Beer
AP PhotoWhy doesn't amateurism work? For the same reason Prohibition didn't work.

• On the second point, coaches still control playing -- read: pro audition -- time. They'll be fine, even if their players have some scratch in their pockets.

• On the third point, remember what we said about the IRS?

• On the last point, is there anyone in college athletics -- including the NCAA -- who's actually happy about the NCAA?

Consider a historical analogy: prohibition. The strongest argument against outlawing alcohol was that it didn't work. People like drinking. The second-strongest argument was that the law took a pre-existing, age-old social problem -- irresponsible, excessive drinking -- and simply added a crime problem, creating an enforcement headache and a lucrative black market. (See: Capone, Al.)

Amateurism largely works the same way. Forget that young athletes getting paid isn't exactly a social ill to begin with -- did anyone want to void Freddy Adu's middle school club scoring records when he filmed that soda commercial with Pele? Instead, focus on this: By insisting that college athletics be different from every other form of human endeavor, the ban on pay-for-play simply pushes the sport's natural economy underground.

The desire for winning is immense. The rewards for victory are equally outsized. (See: Saban, Nick.) Meanwhile, the pool of difference-making players is finite. Enter supply and demand. Enter college football's black market, its current flurry of hand-wringing, the sanctions and investigations and moralizing, all of the naked hypocrisy contained therein. And for what? To serve an outdated, discredited ideal? Ancient Greek athletes competed in the nude. Should we get rid of uniforms?

(Answer: No way. Just think of the lost gear sponsorships and jersey sales revenue. There's your horror.)

So open it up. Drive the final stake into amateurism. Let athletes earn every penny they can -- cash-stuffed booster envelopes, cushy jobs, local endorsements, whatever -- the same way everyone else in society is allowed to pursue happiness via financial enrichment. It would be more honest. More American, frankly.

In a 1995 book, former NCAA executive director Walter Byers -- not exactly a wild-eyed reformer -- wrote that amateurism in college sports amounted to "economic tyranny." He was right. And definitely being too kind.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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