Have you ever thought hard about the word “amateur”?
For some reason, we in America love the notion of the amateur athlete, the idealized jock doing his or her sport for nothing, carefree and innocent, like a fawn in a meadow, happy just to play the game even if those around him or her make fortunes off that play.
It’s telling that we know the word “amateur” best by its opposite. An amateur is someone who is not a professional.
But who is a professional? Or rather, who isn’t?
Little Johnny gets free hot dogs from Joe’s Deli when his fifth-grade travel baseball team wins? Little Susie gets a free uniform from the town bookstore that sponsors her soccer team?
Poorly paid pros, yes.
But you get the point. It’s a fact that adhering to the unenforceable, unrealistic concept of amateurism and the alleged purity that comes with not getting paid for being superior at what you do is behind more than 100 years of conflict and pain caused to athletes under the NCAA’s control.
Now, at last, the U.S. Supreme Court has brought the NCAA’s cartel-like restraint of trade into the first stages of antitrust breakup. Abruptly, college athletes can dip their toes into the waters of the free market, where their overlords have been splashing about from the get-go. From Florida to Alaska, sea to shining sea, college jocks — male and female, in all sports — are now able to capitalize on their identity, their fame, even their grades!
It’s not just star quarterbacks who will be cashing in. Indeed, the possibilities for smart, scholarly, outgoing, decent, entrepreneurial athletes of every sort to market their likenesses or do endorsements or be part of businesses that use them as paid role models — well, that gives new meaning to the NCAA’s cynically created term “student-athlete.”
No, it’s not an absolute Wild West free-for-all. Individual states have some say in this. And colleges can set reasonable limits. This is developing capitalism.
But consider that incoming Tennessee State freshman basketball player Hercy Miller just signed a $2 million brand ambassador deal with Web Apps America, a software development company in Los Angeles. Well, yes, it helps that his dad is rap mogul Master P.
I mean, duh. But as the 19-year-old Miller said, “This is like playing in the pros now.”
It’s likely that many lesser athletes and stars alike will now stay in school for all of their eligibility, as long as they can, because of the perks of being that thing known as an “influencer.”
For those who don’t like this upending of the “amateur” world, who enjoyed having unpaid TV and stadium superstars entertaining them without voice or income — well, sorry. Just know this could have been resolved decades ago. It could have been resolved any time the wealthy, white-haired, sanctimonious NCAA field bosses with the figurative bullwhips in hand and the politicians, boosters, sponsors and TV networks in their pockets decided to.
Folks, this is what I wrote in a book called “The Hundred-Yard Lie” published 32 years ago (now re-released as “The College Football Problem”), with in-person observations going back to the early 1970s and document research back to the mid-19th century: “I marvel that amateurism still exists, in the face of the case against it.”
Of course, the Olympics went pro years ago. Don’t forget those college coaches making up to $10 million a year. Why wasn’t an academic scholarship good enough for them?
As essayist William T. Foster wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Only childlike innocence or willful blindness need prevent American colleges from seeing that the rules which aim to maintain athletics on what is called an ‘amateur’ basis . . . are worse than useless because, while failing to prevent men from playing for free, they breed deceit and hypocrisy.”
He wrote that in 1915. Back before rap. Before boy bands from Korea, even.
Amateurism is also described as something being done by somebody in an “incompetent or inept” way. Does that describe sports in the Big Ten? In the Pac-12? At Clemson, where quarterback Trevor Lawrence, this year’s No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, came from?
I daydream about what I could have done while playing football for Northwestern many years ago if we’d had these new rules. Maybe a deal with Vienna Beef here in Chicago? Or Nathan’s in New York? I do love hot dogs. That’s on my permanent record. What a spokesman I could have been! Joey Chestnut, back off!
So, amateurism, bye-bye. It’s been said before: Better late than never.