Amateur Hour

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Leftist, pro-professional propaganda?
  • Leftist, pro-professional propaganda?
"The Shame of College Sports," the lead article in the October Atlantic, is every bit as good as David Brooks describes it: in the Friday New York Times, Brooks calls Taylor Branch's piece "superb" and says it shows "how financial concerns have come to dominate college athletics. Everybody makes money except the players."

But Brooks's response to the problem Branch laid out is a little puzzling. By way of background, Brooks tells us that "today’s left-leaning historians generally excoriate the amateur ideal for its snobbery and the hypocrisy it engendered. The movie 'Chariots of Fire' popularized their critique. In the film, the upholders of the amateur ideal are snobbish, anti-Semitic reactionaries. The heroes are unabashedly commercial and practical. Modern and free-thinking, they pay people so they can win.

"Thus did the left-wing critique welcome the corporate domination of sport."

At least Brooks is reminding us that the Times pays him to contribute a conservative viewpoint, a function plenty of conservatives think he fulfills none too conservatively. But the reference to "left-leaning historians" feels gratuitous and wrong-headed. I don't recognize the Chariots of Fire that he recalls. Yes, snobs, anti-Semites, and reactionaries figure in the story — as they always do in movies set in England back in the day. But the movie's not about them.

Its heroes pay no one — they are two British runners seeking glory in the 1924 Olympics. Anti-Semitism spurs on Harold Abrahams, who eventually wins a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Eric Liddell runs for God. "I believe that God made me for a purpose," he says. "But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." It is Liddell who passes up his strongest event, the 100, because the finals will be on the Sabbath. He enters and wins the 400, which he was able to do because Lord Andrew Lindsay, having already won a silver medal in the hurdles, ceded him his place. So there's a third hero, a member of the British aristocracy.

Chariots of Fire won a best-picture Oscar in 1981, but not because it was some sort of leftist critique of amateurism. The Reader's Dave Kehr ripped the picture, but that definitely wasn't the reason.

Branch reluctantly concludes that college athletes should be paid something. Maybe, says Brooks, but how and who? "Would the stars get millions while the rest get hardly nothing? Would you pay the wrestling team, or any of the female athletes?"

Perhaps it's not that complicated. Pay them a portion of what they earn the university. Branch points out that Division One football and March Madness basketball are billion-dollar businesses, thanks to TV contracts. Give those players a cut.

Branch points out that one revenue stream involves retailing old game films, and also video games that contain the digitized likenesses of actual players. But the players in these games and films cannot share in the profits. Not now. Not ever. Branch writes:

A series of lawsuits quietly making their way through the courts cast a harsh light on the absurdity of the system—and threaten to dislodge the foundations on which the NCAA rests. On July 21, 2009, lawyers for Ed O’Bannon filed a class-action antitrust suit against the NCAA at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. “Once you leave your university,” says O’Bannon, who won the John Wooden Award for player of the year in 1995 on UCLA’s national-championship basketball team, “one would think your likeness belongs to you.” The NCAA and UCLA continue to collect money from the sales of videos of him playing. But by NCAA rules, O’Bannon, who today works at a Toyota dealership near Las Vegas, alleges he is still not allowed to share the revenue the NCAA generates from his own image as a college athlete.

Brooks acknowledges this policy. He doesn't say it's right. He doesn't say it's not ridiculous. But he cannot follow Branch through the door. "The amateur ideal, though faded and worn, still imposes some restraints. It forces athletes, seduced by Michael Jordan fantasies, to at least think of themselves partially as students. It forces coaches, an obsessively competitive group, to pay homage to academic pursuits. College basketball is more thrilling than pro basketball because the game is still animated by amateur passions, not coldly calculating professional interests.

"The commercial spirit is strong these days. But people seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them."

Brooks needs to take a closer look at sports and athletes. If he did, I think he'd find plenty of passion in pro competition. Not in the endless seasons and circuits that the pros inflict on themselves — the NBA schedule endured to eliminate a handful of teams from the playoffs, the golf and tennis tournaments no one gives a damn about but the local Jaycees — but in the competitions that mean something to the athletes in them. For instance, watching the no-longer-amateur Olympics, I've never spotted tell-tale signs from any of the athletes digging in their cleats or taking the ice with the gold medal on the line that it was about the money.

If Derrick Rose had been paid a few bucks for the NCAA final game against Kansas he played in, would he have felt less a student? How much a student did he ever feel anyway — Rose or any other one-and-done basketball player? Brooks is clearly delighted when a Butler reaches the championship game and the town and campus go crazy; but is there reason to believe they'd have gone less crazy if the billion-dollar March Madness TV package had thrown a few dollars the players' way?

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