An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
For more than a century, "for love of the game" propaganda romanticizing amateurism in NCAA Division I sports has been force-fed to fans, coaches, administrators, and college athletes alike. And we eat it up, convincing ourselves that not allowing campus players to get paid anything beyond full grant-in-aid produces something purer and ultimately better than anything those money-grubbing professionals can offer.
March Madness is the epitome of this. We don't like to think about big-time college basketball as a billion-dollar industry, one that saddles the athletes we love rooting for with absurd financial restrictions, intense demands, and a lack of basic rights. And the people on the right side of those billions of dollars, particularly in NCAA executive suites, are more than happy to profit from our sentimentality.
Well, as a former Division I basketball player myself, let me offer a corrective: from an athlete's perspective, amateurism is both burdensome and totally irrelevant.
First of all, having money in your pocket—and more importantly, having a say about the rules that dominate your entire life, from what you can eat to whom you can speak with—does not impact one's love for the game. To the contrary, and from my experience, it's being broke, fighting through grueling off-season conditioning, working on holidays, and getting verbally attacked throughout double sessions that actually drives many college basketball players to hate the game.
Moreover, being able to make money doesn't run counter to learning. Do you know anyone who would have gotten better grades if they had just been more hard up for cash? If anything, increased income for athletes could be a valuable part of their educational experiences—for example, it's hard to learn about finance and money management when you're strapped—and would serve as a major help for a lot of families struggling to make ends meet.
Besides, amateurism itself is a facade. It doesn't really exist. The NCAA moves heaven and Earth to punish those who dare violate amateurism sanctity, all while defining what the term means. As it turns out, their definition is highly malleable. Amateurism means you can't be compensated for playing a sport, not unless it's via a scholarship, or a cost-of-living stipend, or with laundry money—or more recently, because you're an Olympic athlete, which makes pay-for-play OK.
Amateurism, in short, is whatever the NCAA says it is. More often than not, what the NCAA says has less to do with bedrock principle than whoever is currently shaming the association and its member schools on national television, or suing them in federal antitrust court.
While athletes wonder if it's OK to eat a plate of gratis pasta, we watch our coaches, administrators, schools and conferences grow rich. Hell, even the football strength coach at the University of Iowa makes close to $600,000 per year. And since no one is allowed to simply pay us, we watch tens of millions of dollars flow into lavish athletic facilities that stand as pharaoh-shaming monuments of excess, complete with bowling alleys, barber shops, and arcades. Anything to lure the next class of coveted high school recruits, all of us who make the money spigot possible.
Oh, but the second we talk about trust fund payouts or maybe purchasing long-term health insurance for the injuries we suffer on the job, NCAA purists bleat about the slippery slope to corruption. We can't be paid, because that would violate the academic mission of our schools.
About that mission: Two of my college coaches left my school for new gigs that paid multimillion dollar salaries annually. Until a couple of weeks ago, my final college coach was making nearly a million dollars per year, with a variety of salary escalators built-in—including a reported annual $80,000 bonus if the players hit their APR target.
In other words: he was paid for the work we did in the the classroom. Tell me again about corrupting the academy?
What does that money do to our coaches? It creates fierce pressure and financial motivation to do whatever it takes to get the job done. And that burdens us, the athletes who do the bulk of the work. We are pressured to stay on campus year-round for "voluntary" workouts. We are routinely forced into majors and academic schedules that are conducive to our sports schedules, and not necessarily our aspirations and interests. We spend an average of forty hours per week on basketball-related activities, despite the twenty-hour limit stated in the NCAA rulebook.
When we have off-season time to work on something besides sports, our part-time employment opportunities are regulated by NCAA compliance officers. If you don't get their blessing or neglect to disclose your earnings and hours, you run the risk of being deemed ineligible and losing your scholarship. All because of amateurism.
When you're a player, stupid rules like this dominate every aspect of your life. I know of athletes who were forced to pay fines in the form of small donations to charities as restitution for accepting a ride to the airport from a member of their coaching staff. When my siblings and I were in school, NCAA rules prevented universities from being able to cover travel for players to visit home over the holidays. From my experience, you only got 24-48 hours off over Christmas. As a result, my parents would have to buy our plane tickets home during peak travel season, which isn't exactly cheap, just so that we could see each other for a day or two.
Of course, we're told that the reason for all of these restrictions is to protect athletes from economic exploitation. Some protection.
Ultimately, amateurism isn't about money. It's about power. Athletes basically have zero say in rules that affect both their lives and livelihoods. Rules that pertain directly to our health, well-being, financial security, working conditions, and educational environment. From concussion protocols to medical coverage to due process to scholarship duration to practice limitations, we're told what to do. We don't get to negotiate otherwise.
Amateurism does nothing to serve athletes or improve our college experiences. Instead, it's a cruel joke, a doublespeak concept that only serves to excuse and amplify inequities between the haves and have-nots, the athletes and the administrators they serve, perpetuating a system of suppression and exploitation.
Luke Bonner is the co-founder of the College Athletes Players Association. He played college basketball at West Virginia and UMass and is an advocate for college athletes' rights.
As America's multi-billion-dollar college sports industry continues to weather intense scrutiny in court and in the press, is paying players inevitable? Check out VICE's "End of Amateurism" documentary segment on HBO this Friday, March 31 at 7:30pm and 11pm.