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Patrick Hruby

Freedom For All

Sorry, NCAA. Amateurism is actually un-American

Sports on Earth

Maybe you missed it. Probably you missed it, because: (a) this is a holiday weekend; (b) you have a life. No problem. I'll catch you up. On Thursday afternoon, the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a wholly expected amicus brief with the National Labor Relations board, supporting Northwestern University's appeal of a recent NLRB regional ruling that found football players to be school employees.

Now for the newsworthy part. In an accompanying press release, the association made its usual points about why college athletes can't be considered employees: because they're students, and because education, and because proper integration and appropriate role and yadda yadda yadda.

Oh, and then the NCAA said something truly ridiculous:

… Maintaining the collegiate model of athletics, which is uniquely American, is crucial …

Uniquely American?

No. No. A thousand times no. Not on a Thursday, not on a Sunday, and absolutely freaking not on the Fourth of July. Read past the public relations weasel words. When the NCAA extols the "collegiate model of athletics," it means amateurism. And amateurism is many things: a powerful, pernicious mythology; an eight-cylinder engine of tinpot morality and unearned sanctimony; a prime mover of athletic department gold-plating; the next best thing to indentured servitude when it comes to reducing labor costs; a way to sucker otherwise-sharp federal judges, addled by the "Athenian concept of a complete education derived from fostering full growth of both mind and body"; an oily term of tax-and-worker's-compensation-dodging legal art that basically means whatever the association says it means. But the one thing amateurism is not, has never been and can never, ever be is uniquely American.

To the contrary, it's uniquely un-American.

Let's count the ways. You know who invented the concept of sports amateurism? Not the ancient Greeks. Granted, Socrates and Co. really were fans of mind and body growth. That said, Olympic athletes of classical antiquity were lavished with payouts, political appointments and other pay-for-play perks. Because duh. They performed a service that had value. The closest ancient Greek term for "amateur?" Idiotes. Translation unnecessary.

No, amateurism did not spring from the cradle of Western Civilization. You won't find it on the Elgin Marbles. In reality, it came from snooty fops -- specifically, Victorian-era English aristocrats who looked down on paid manual labor, in part because they already were rich and didn't need paychecks, and in part because they didn't want to compete in rowing regattas and on the fields of play against the unwashed masses. Unwashed masses that happened to be farm-and-factory strong, and therefore enjoyed what was considered to be an unfair physical advantage.

How to keep the upper crust in and everyone else out? Simple. Define pay-for-play as suspect. Impure. Downright dirty. Meanwhile, extol the virtues of competition sans compensation. Pretend the Greeks had something to do with it. Get English universities and athletic clubs on board, and watch their American counterparts -- as well as the modern Olympics -- follow suit.

Never mind, of course, that those same Americans fought a Revolutionary War largely to free themselves from an overbearing and classist British Empire.

Speaking of said revolution: the Boston Tea Party was a revolt against taxation without representation. Against the East India Company's government-enabled tea trade monopoly. The war that followed was waged against arbitrary, capricious, unfair rule. Imperfect as they were, our founders and first patriots fought for freedom and self-determination. Much of our subsequent history has been a long, hard, sometimes bloody struggle to extend that promise to all of our citizens. On the Fourth of July, we mark our progress -- the same progress college sports amateurism roundly ignores.

Today, we celebrate representative government. People power. The consent of the governed. Meanwhile, the NCAA imposes economic restraints and a maximum wage -- otherwise known as a scholarship -- on college athletes who generate billions of dollars of revenue, all without asking their opinions or giving them the opportunity to vote for change. Today, we celebrate due process under the law. Meanwhile, the NCAA denies athletes the right to legal representation and has claimed before Congress that college athletes have no standing for due process because they have no right to freedom or property with regard to their own athletic labors. Today, we celebrate individual liberty, including the economic liberty to fully exploit one's talent and effort in a free and fair marketplace. Meanwhile, the NCAA prevents Jeremy Bloom from playing college football while accepting Olympic ski endorsements and Jonathan Benjamin from playing college basketball while using his own photos to promote a self-created clothing line that grew out of a class project, even though wearing a Nike swoosh on his school uniform is A-OK. Today, we celebrate capitalism and healthy economic competition, the kind that produces widespread benefits while keeping power manageable and decentralized. Meanwhile, a NCAA attorney proudly calls the association a cartel, but "a cartel that does good things," as if Standard Oil and Pablo Escobar didn't do good things, too. Today, we celebrate our messy-but-continuing efforts to give all citizens both equality under the law and equality of opportunity. Meanwhile, NCAA amateurism sets campus athletes apart, separate and unequal, and then beats its chest about a uniquely American collegiate model.

Again, no. A thousand times no. Not today. The association likes to talk about "pay-for-play," but in reality, the battle over amateurism is a battle over the right to negotiate, a right the rest of us take for granted. Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch puts it best:

… the NCAA has no recourse to principle and law that can justify amateurism. There are no such things. Amateurism is a feeling, not a standard. Remarkably, it has survived by assumption and convenience, with no foundation on open ground. Scholars and sportswriters still yearn for grand juries to ferret out very bauble that reaches a college athlete, but the NCAA's ersatz courts can only masquerade as public authority. They bluster and dissemble for good reason. How could a legitimate statue impose amateur status on college athletes or anyone else? No legal definition of amateur exists, and the attempt to create one in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature - a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship …

Perhaps you're unconvinced. Maybe you think denying college athletes' basic economic rights actually counts as uniquely American, simply because that's what American schools long have done. (By the same logic, both Jim Crow laws and seven seasons of Arli$ also are "uniquely American," yet neither one is a reason for celebratory fireworks and hot dog-eating contests.)

If so, consider this: in America, amateurism's greatest champion arguably was a former International Olympic Committee bigwig named Avery Brundage, a sexist anti-Semite who refused to cancel the Munich Games after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by terrorists and called John Carlos and Tommie Smith's iconic medal stand black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games a "nasty demonstration against the American flag by negroes." By contrast, amateurism's greatest victim arguably was Jim Thorpe, maybe the greatest athlete of the 20th century, who was stripped of his 1912 Olympic gold medals for receiving a few dollars a day while playing minor league summer baseball.

On the Fourth of July, which man's memory would you rather honor? The guy who once said "you know, the ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games. They wouldn't even let them on the sidelines. I'm not so sure but they were right," or the guy on the Wheaties Box?

As they do every Independence day, a group of strong-jawed competitors on Coney Island will stuff themselves full of hot dogs, largely because America likes to watch. The winners will receive prize checks. Freely. No one will be sanctioned. All the while, the NCAA will continue to insist that college athletes are somehow different, and that said difference is somehow fundamental to this country. Don't be fooled. The next time the association wraps amateurism in the flag, remember: it's not a cape. It's a shield. When the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, its signees were tired of being treated as second-class citizens. They were tired of being treated as amateurs.

Read the original article at Sports on Earth