Thursday, September 9, 2010

A.J. Green and the flawed concept of "amateurism"

With college football now underway and the NFL season kicking off tonight, I couldn't be more excited (especially since football takes my mind off the Red Sox, who I hear are still playing baseball games...good to know). But then along came the A.J. Green story, and (once again) a renewal of the age-old debate over amateurism in collegiate athletics.

This issue is far from new (as the legendary Brian Bosworth demonstrates so well in the below picture), and the Green story sheds no real new light on it. But as revenues in collegiate athletics continue to rise, it simply seems like incidents like this are happening more frequently--and will continue to do so. The clash between the NCAA and its athletes may be inching ever closer to an inevitable boiling point.

Green, for those who don't know or didn't feel like clicking on the above link, is a junior wide receiver at the University of Georgia. Yesterday, following a lengthy investigation, he was suspended 3 games by the NCAA for selling one of his game-worn jerseys to someone who "qualifies as an agent" under NCAA bylaws. On the surface, this is a clear violation of NCAA rules regarding amateurism. But Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples points out the clear hypocrisy of the situation.
If you're looking for a Georgia No. 8 jersey direct from Green, you're probably out of luck. Fortunately, you can buy 22 different variations of Green's No. 8 directly from the Georgia athletic department's official Web site. Want the white replica? That'll cost you $59.99. Want the ladies' version in white and pink? That'll run you $55. Want the red authentic -- a grass stain-free version of the one Green sold? That'll be a cool $150.
For selling one A.J. Green jersey to an agent, Green will miss a third of his junior season, including key SEC games against South Carolina and Arkansas. For selling thousands of A.J. Green jerseys to the masses, the University of Georgia will get a boatload of money.
I've personally done a full 180 on my opinion regarding collegiate athletes' amateurism. I once believed, as the NCAA seems to, that the value of a free education (via athletic scholarships) was far greater than any royalties or benefits that a player might otherwise receive. The learnings and lifetime earnings potential from a college degree were no small benefit, and this seemed just compensation for services rendered. Those athletes who insisted on being paid (or at least allowed to work part-time jobs) seemed to be belly-aching about semantics.

But things have changed in the past 10 or 20 years. ESPN and Nike have taken over the collegiate athletics universe, with explicit permission from the schools in question. A perfect example is Monday night's Boise State-Virginia Tech football game, in which both teams wore "special" Nike-manufactured jerseys during an ESPN-televised game (commemorated, in a nice circular logic sort of way, by Both ESPN and Nike stood to make boatloads off this marketing bonanza, none of which will accrue directly to the players on the field.

At the same time, graduation rates among student-athletes have plummeted. Only 46% of University of Georgia football players actually graduate, and this distinction somehow manages to qualify for best in the Southeastern Conference. It is hard to imagine that the other 54% are actually realizing any of the benefits of their "free" education.

There is, of course, an argument in defense of the continued practice. For all the money that ESPN and Nike make, so too do the colleges and universities that these athletes represent. These earnings allow those schools to invest more into facilities and faculty, raising the level of education for all concerned, athletes or otherwise. For the athletes' part, they choose to play NCAA athletics with eyes wide open, many of them recognizing it as a necessary apprenticeship toward a (possible) multi-million dollar professional career.

But the options for the high school athlete with professional aspirations are severely limited, as neither the NFL nor the NBA will allow a player to sign a contract directly out of high school. Court challenges against these policies have gone nowhere (hello, Maurice Clarett), as the courts have essentially ruled that collective bargaining agreements negotiated by professional athletes (and their unions) trump all else. Baseball, for its part, has no similar restrictions, but revenues for college baseball are nowhere near as high as those for football and basketball.

I'm certainly not pro-union by any means, but it seems our student-athletes are at a significant disadvantage because they lack a central lobbying organization of their own. ESPN, Nike, and the NCAA are very powerful bodies, and the individual athletes are currently subject to their whims without a clear central voice to defend them. That may change.

[Sports Illustrated]

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