Even by the wheezing standards of National Collegiate Athletic Association jurisprudence -- making campus sports a purer, more noble endeavor since 1910, one scofflaw bagel topping at a time -- the opening weeks of the college basketball season have been absurd.
Take two of the schools competing in this week’s Legends Classic tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. UCLA features heralded freshman Shabazz Muhammad, previously declared ineligible by the NCAA for the egregious crime of taking unofficial recruiting trips to Duke and North Carolina that were paid for by a family friend, trips that Muhammad otherwise couldn’t afford. How dare a prospective college student get help to visit … his possible future schools!
Meanwhile, Indiana is without freshmen Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea, both of whom have been suspended for accepting financial support from a nonprofit organization that assists international student-athletes -- support that the NCAA would have been fine with, if not for the fact that the head of the nonprofit, AAU coach Mark Adams, was ruled a Hoosiers booster because he gave the university’s athletic department a grand total of $185 between 1986 and 1992, which just happens to be before either player was, you know, born.
But wait. There’s more.
San Diego State freshman Winston Shepard reportedly was suspended because a family he befriended while attending prep school in Las Vegas co-signed a loan for a car he purchased and drove for -- call 911 -- less than a week. New Mexico senior Jamal Fenton was suspended for renting a ballroom at a discounted rate from the same local hotel that also sponsors the school’s athletic department. The size of the discount? A whopping $250 – and Fenton, who was celebrating his 21st birthday, didn’t even realize he was getting it. Then there’s Memphis junior college transfer Geron Johnson, who, like Muhammad, was suspended for accepting “impermissible benefits” from a family friend -- in his case, money to cover educational expenses incurred before Johnson actually enrolled at Memphis. Which means the student-athlete-first NCAA not only penalized him for taking cash to go to school, but also doled out a punishment roughly equivalent to your new boss docking vacation days for a trip you took to Europe before accepting your job.
But wait. There’s still more.
Saving the worst for last, Akron junior forwards Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell were suspended for the first three games of the season because school administrators failed to complete “final amateur certification” paperwork prior to last season. Never mind that neither player broke any actual rules nor did anything unseemly. Never mind that neither player did much of anything, come to think of it.
If all of the above seems unfair -- and by unfair, I mean as arbitrary, capricious and petty as the imperial British rule that produced both the Declaration of Independence and “Assassin’s Creed III”-- well, that’s because it is. In college sports, justice isn’t blind; it’s a blind, trembling man throwing darts in a pitch-black room, hoping to strike a coveted recruit getting a free pair of shoes, or maybe a star player receiving a cash-stuffed envelope from an overzealous friend of the program. And things can never be otherwise. Not so long as the NCAA continues to promote and defend a false ideal rooted in ersatz morality; an unworkable mandate that makes no practical sense; a corrupting system that turns legitimate, well-meaning oversight (specifically, looking out for the safety and welfare of campus athletes) into a risible, dispiriting wabbit hunt, an endless, unwinnable war against both human nature and basic economics.
I’m referring, of course, to amateurism. The notion that college athletes must never, ever receive any sort of quid pro quo compensation for their sporting services -- well, beyond approved tuition, room and board, and perhaps a small cost-of-living stipend-- no matter how much the rest of the world wants to give them compensation, lest said athletes end up … I dunno, biblically unclean or something.
Amateurism is why the NCAA played pretend FBI and reportedly demanded thousands of pages of documents from Muhammad’s family while interrogating their friend, a Charlotte-based financial adviser named Benjamin Lincoln, even though no actual crime was committed. Amateurism is why five Ohio State football players who traded gear for free tattoos in 2010 became history’s greatest monsters. Amateurism is why the scandal surrounding Cam Newton’s single season at Auburn revolved around a representative for the quarterback supposedly requesting $180,000 for Newton to play at Mississippi, and did not revolve around the fact that $180,000 for a Heisman-winning season that ended with the Tigers earning a $21.2 million payout for appearing in the BCS title game is a freaking bargain. Amateurism is why sports agents who lavish prospective clients with gifts, dinners and parties are libeled as “pimps” by the sanctimonious likes of Alabama football coach Nick Saban -- a man whose eight-year, $32 million contract, it should be noted, was negotiated by pimp/agent Jimmy Sexton -- while high-powered law firms and investment banks that do basically the same thing with Ivy League students are considered, well, wholly unremarkable.
Thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. The NCAA was created to protect athletes from head injuries, not from co-signed car loans, gratis recruiting trips and absent-minded campus bureaucrats. There is no reasonable justification for amateurism -- an economic straitjacket applied to exactly no one else in American society besides young athletes, and what did they ever do to deserve their financial shackles beyond making the rest of us insanely happy? -- and not a single argument for its continuing existence that passes the most basic commonsense smell test.
Amateur athletes are pure? Please. Contrary to popular misconception, amateurism wasn’t invented by the ancient Greeks, nor by the myth-addled founders of the modern Olympics. (Indeed, the Olympic athletes of classical antiquity were lavished with payouts, political appointments and other pay-for-play perks, while the closest ancient Greek term for amateur -- idiotes -- needs no special translation). Instead, the concept was conjured out of whole cloth by Victorian-era English rowers, largely because wealthy, snooty aristocrats didn’t want compete against -- and get their tails kicked by -- strong, grimy, working-class laborers. When Oxford and Cambridge adopted amateurism, Harvard and Yale followed suit. More than a century later, even the Olympics wisely have given up the amateur ghost.
In college basketball, on the other hand, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea has to show up at Pauley Pavilion wearing a “Free Shabazz” t-shirt.
Does amateurism at least level the recruiting playing field between schools, ensuring competitive balance by preventing certain programs from buying up all of the most talented high school athletes? Again, no. Ohio State gets one level of athlete. Miami of Ohio gets another. Such is the way of things. Schools with intense fan interest and corresponding financial resources still have a decisive, insurmountable market advantage -- after all, money that otherwise would go into athletes’ pockets instead goes to bigger stadium Jumbotrons, better weight rooms, shinier luxury dorms and swollen coaching salaries, all of which essentially act as indirect recruiting inducements.
As for amateurism acting as the last bloody Spartan at Thermopylae, guarding against the debasing commercialization of campus sports? Stop. Just stop. Should I even mention Maryland and Rutgers joining longtime geographic rivals Northwestern and Michigan in the Big [Insert Current Number Here] Conference? Or the continuing existence of the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl?
Horse, barn, empty. Discuss.
Indeed, the only real reasons for college sports to cling to amateurism are financial. And pretty much craven. Prohibiting pay-for-play allows the NCAA and its member schools to pocket the television, sponsorship and ticket money that other minor leagues share with their on-field workforces. More important, amateurism lets athletic departments maintain their tax-exempt standing with the IRS. Small wonder, then, that the NCAA continues to double down on the status quo, expanding what amounts to an amateurism-enforcing security state. In October, the association announced a series of get-tough, check-out-these-teeth measures designed to
score a public relations victory following the Penn State debacle punish rules violations more swiftly and severely: increasing the hierarchy of possible infractions from two to four; doubling the size of the association’s infraction committee; adopting a presumption that head coaches are responsible for violations -- presumed guilty, in other words -- until proven otherwise, a policy that’s less U.S. Constitution than Spanish Inquisition. John Calipari floats when dunked in water. Therefore, he is a witch. Q.E.D.
Of course, the above ignores the obvious: Enforcement isn’t the problem. Attempting to enforce bad, misguided rules is the problem. And one way or another, doing so always ends up causing more trouble than it alleviates. Go back to Muhammad. After the NCAA suspended him, UCLA announced that it would appeal the decision. One day before the appeal hearing, the Los Angeles Times reported that a lawyer had been on an airplane in early August and overhead a man bragging that his girlfriend, Abigail, was going to bring down Muhammad because his family “was dirty and they were taking money and she’s going to get them.” Now, the NCAA’s assistant director of enforcement just happens to be named Abigail Grantstein. The bragging in question took place just one week after the association demanded the Muhammad family’s documentation. Following the Times’ story, Muhammad’s previously indefinite suspension was lifted. Poof. At the same time, the NCAA announced that it was investigating the overheard airplane conversation -- in part because it may have violated privacy rules, in part because it seemed to indicate that Grantstein prejudged Muhammad, giving new credence to Jerry Tarkanian’s old crack that “the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."
If the Muhammad case sounds like something out of “The Wire,” that’s no coincidence. At its core, the NCAA’s stubborn embrace of amateurism is akin to the War on Drugs. Both are picked fights against human nature -- one against the individual desire to get high; the other against our collective desire to be entertained by college-age kids who can jump high and run fast. Both distort markets (for talent or narcotics), warping incentives and creating underground, black-market economies. Both require a migraine-inducing level of cognitive dissonance: Why are cigarettes and alcohol legal while marijuana isn’t? Why are scholarships OK but cash payments verboten? And both have done little to deter unwanted behavior -- drugs and college sports scandals remain commonplace -- while bloating and enriching the bodies (the NCAA, the prison-industrial complex) tasked with policing that behavior.
Advocates of drug decriminalization often argue that the War on Drugs takes a public health problem -- drug addiction and abuse -- and adds a crime problem. To put things another way: Prohibition didn’t deter Americans from drinking, but it did make Al Capone and other violent criminals awfully rich. Similarly, amateurism creates crime and punishment around impermissible benefits without even addressing a preexisting social issue. (Well, unless you consider college football players hanging out at an agent’s summer pool party to be a clear and present danger to the republic.) The fact of the matter is that young, talented athletes have economic value beyond scholarships; pretending otherwise to prop up a tax-exempt academic cartel doesn’t make that reality any less true. In clinging to no-pay-for-play system, the NCAA makes itself both relevant and ridiculous, an inadequate cure for a self-inflicted disease. There will always be more violations. More suspensions. More snooping. More judging. More essential unfairness. More arbitrary adherence to the letter of a law that lacks any sort of defensible spirit. The question isn’t why the NCAA continues to toss darts in the dark. It’s why anyone puts up with it.