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November 10, 2010
Dear NCAA
About that Trouble with Amateurism

by John Gasaway

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I for one think it's pretty clear that someone got to John Infante in between the time he said my essay "The Trouble with Amateurism" comprised "the five best pages of NCAA criticism ever written" and the time he advised readers of said essay to "ignore all the fluff." (Fluff? Hey, that was a lean five pages.) I'm not pointing any fingers at any shadowy four-letter governance associations headquartered in Indianapolis that may have crept up behind John in a dark SUV with tinted windows. Yet. But it sure looks mighty peculiar from where I'm sitting.

In his reply John did me the considerable though unearned honor of lumping me in with official Friend of Prospectus Jay Bilas, who can be found at the same topical intersection hawking his own cure-all ($). Jay's a big kid who can take care of himself--I make no claim to speak on his behalf. What follows are simply my own thoughts on what I take to be the heart of the matter: What exactly should an NCAA in 2010 be doing?

John says my piece can be boiled down to three essential points, but in his phrasing those points possess an abruptness ("1. The NCAA's view of amateurism is based on a historical ideal with elitist roots") that suggests this Gasaway guy thinks this is all a very simple matter and the NCAA must be dense not to see it as such. Nothing could be further from my true attitude. Sure, my helpful suggestions for the NCAA are substantive and plentiful enough (keep reading). But context counts and, to me, "The Trouble with Amateurism" is at root a pro-NCAA piece, one that was written because of my overwhelming fatigue and, finally, exasperation as a reader. If there was a heartfelt section in all that fluff it was surely this:

We've reached the point where amateurism is to college sports roughly what steroids are to baseball, in that both act as catalysts for reliably formulaic writing. The formula for writing about amateurism mandates that I decry the "hypocrisy" of an NCAA that accepts billions of dollars in TV revenue but prohibits student-athletes from receiving anything more than a scholarship.

I've never really understood the appeal of this particular formula. For better or worse both the organization and its Principle [of Amateurism] were in place for decades before the TV money rolled in. Only when you and I and tens of millions of others decided that we really, really like watching March Madness was the NCAA inundated with cash. Forgive me if I'm not on the front lines shouting: "You greedy hypocrites! How dare you adhere to the stated mission of your century-old organization even though you've recently stumbled into a ton of money that I personally make possible!"

With that at last off my chest I pivoted into "no, the real problem is..." mode:

Amateurism and professionalism coexist naturally and strike their own bargains every day of the week in non-NCAA settings. I suppose the NCAA's attempt to wall off that natural order and create a cordon sanitaire where amateurism will reign supreme over even the most promising young football and basketball players in the world is in some quixotic sense noble, like the dogged resistance and inner conviction of an Amish community or a family that uses the metric system. But that attempt entails tremendous costs.

John's right when he says plenty of good egalitarian things have sprung from self-evidently "elitist" historical circumstances (my favorite example would be the student union ideal), which is why I would never use a loaded term like the E-word. My point was not that it's folly to insist upon amateurism in 2010 but simply that circumstances have changed far more than the NCAA's practices, much less their supporting documents.

My vision for the NCAA is that they "enable student-athletes, in exchange for performing at an acceptable level academically, to pursue what they love heedless of money." That's my amateurism, one based on a word that traces its origins to kin like "amorous" and "amore." Amateurs do what they do because they love it. Here "heedless" means 99.9 percent of the time there will be no money materializing in the form of agents doing what they lawfully and wholesomely do in countless other talent-grooming settings. I applaud that. And 0.01 percent of the time "heedless" could mean money flowing from a contract negotiated and signed between consenting adults. I applaud that too.

In closing I helpfully and proactively drafted the press release that I propose the NCAA put out someday soon:

The NCAA and its member institutions today acknowledge that in a limited number of highly visible instances the clear line of demarcation between college and pro sports will be more like a permeable membrane. That's fine. It's not cause for panic. In fact it's a happy day for the student-athlete so singled out by the professional ranks.

I suppose both the perception of the NCAA and its effective reach could improve, maybe even dramatically, if it "demonstrated through its actions an unwavering commitment to bringing academic achievement together with doing what you love athletically." In my 2010-brand NCAA the organization would no longer be seen as pedants combing through cell-phone records and would instead be seen as something more closely approximating the "savvy" and "benevolent" gang that I say they already are. And I think raising the minimum standards for academic performance in exchange for adopting a relaxed and naturalistic attitude toward professionalism and the ways it can peaceably blend with amateurism is appropriate on both the carrot and stick fronts.

The trouble with amateurism is not that it's imperiled. The trouble is that defining amateurism as the total absence of compensatory reward in all instances always and forever and enforcing that definition can land the word in an arid and rather forbidding place that's a very long way away from doing what you love.

John occasionally eschews philosophy and the history of the Progressive era to discuss this so-called "college basketball" on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available as a PDF.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Book Review (11/09)
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