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The Myth of Amateurism

3/16/2007

I love the NCAA tournament. It's great basketball, and it's so fun to watch. I mean, of course. I'm watching right now, as a matter of fact.

But the more the NCAA tournament consumes my brain, and the more of those corny advertisements for the colleges I see, the more I feel misled.

When I was in college, and watched these games, I felt in some small way like the players were my colleagues. We were all students. All going through somewhat similar experiences. (And as NYU is a division III school, at my college, they were.)

Remember all those conversations through the years about how great it is for athletes to stay in school instead of going professional? I was all for it, back then. I wanted those players to have the kind of experience I had in college. Making those friends, reading those books, doing all that stuff. It was amazing. It makes a lot of sense that young players should enjoy the benefits of higher learning, living among fellow students, and playing for the love of the game instead of a paycheck. Your mind conjures all those photographs from college brochures, or, indeed from those advertisements they show us during timeouts.

I bought all that.

But it was then, and is now, a sham.

In the last couple of years I have talked to so many people, many off the record, about basketball in America. One of the consistent themes is the filth that pervades high-level college basketball. Moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney... as has been discussed a million times before, it's going everywhere you can possibly imagine. Sure, those few stories about Chris Webber or Reggie Bush have made some headlines, but that's the tip of the iceberg from what I have heard from multiple reliable sources. Boosters, agents, financial advisers, businesses, players, families, friends, "uncles," coaches, fellow students... the stories make your head spin.

There's a romantic notion that these guys are playing purely for the love of the game and the experience. But do we have any evidence that that in fact happens anymore at this level? I can't tell you what percentage of players are getting paid, but, well, John Feinstein wrote that book about the Patriot League called The Last Amateurs. Amazingly, I've never heard anyone question the implication of that title--that the guys we're watching on TV this weekend are, by and large, professionals.

What's so great about college when it doesn't have the things that make college great?

  • The higher learning part? Ask Antoine Wright about that. More than literature or math "student-athletes" are getting a crash course in corruption. In fact, by being some of the most popular and influential people on campus, while in many cases really not engaging in learning at all, I'd argue that top-flight basketball players are subtly undermining the core mission--education--of the universities where they play. Think about it. At any party where there are celebrity basketball players, who's going to find a brilliant person fascinating?

  • The living among fellow students? At a lot of colleges, the players live apart, in swanky accomodations.

  • The playing for the love of the game? I'm sure some of them do, but because the whole thing is so hush hush and covered up, we don't even get to know who they are. In many ways, that's the worst part to me. In cycling, for instance, I'm sure there are some athletes who are refusing to cheat with drugs. If one of those guys managed to beat all the android competition, I'd cheer extra hard for the sheer heroism of it. But, out of respect for the sport, I guess, those guys don't identify themselves. Same thing in college basketball. Who are those uncorrupted players? I want to celebrate them.

And, for the record, I'm not so bothered by the fact that these young athletes, who create so much value and could use the cash, are getting paid. (The coarsest of business analyses would reveal that they deserve salaries.) I'm bothered by the charade of amateurism and education, and the way it rewards those most willing to be most seedy, underhanded, and amoral.

OK, rant over. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a tournament to watch.