Releasing Friday on Amazon, iTunes, and other digital download services, the documentary The Business of Amateurs takes a critical look at big-time college sports, concluding that the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member schools place money and their own interests above the rights and well-being of campus athletes.
VICE Sports recently spoke to director Bob DeMars, a former University of Southern California football player, about his experiences as an athlete, the ongoing debate over pay-for-play, brain trauma in football, criticizing college sports while loving them, and other issues covered in the film.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
VICE Sports: In your film, you diagnose two major ills in college sports: the financial exploitation of athletes, and a parallel failure to protect their physical health. You're also a former USC football player. When you were a college athlete, how did you perceive and understand—or not perceive and understand—those same ills?
Bob DeMars: I was pretty naive to those issues as problems. When you're playing, you are carrying everyone's dreams with you—your friends, family, everyone from your hometown is watching you. You go from being the best player wherever you came from to a team where everyone was that guy. There's an awful lot of competition, and you're just thinking about trying to not piss off the coaches. When you're hurt, you feel like a burden to the team. There's a shameful quality to it. Your brothers are out there fighting and battling. You feel guilty.
I did feel the squeeze, financially. I would take toilet paper rolls out of the athletic department building to save money. You don't have any money to do anything. But you kind of accept that. You just assume that's the way it's supposed to be. I once went and bought Nike flip-flops because I knew the school had a deal with Nike, and I was worried I might get in trouble if I bought Reebok. [Laughs.]
You don't think about the amount of money your coaches are making. John Robinson was my coach when I got to USC. He was very much a father figure. Open-door policy, come talk anytime you want. It felt like a family. One time, John called me in and said, "Bobby, you look thin there." He gave me a $20 handshake. "Go get yourself something to eat." Then he pulled me closer and said, "And bring me back two chicken sandwiches." The chicken sandwiches ended up costing twenty bucks. So I didn't get anything! But that was funny at the time.
What happened to change your understanding, and how and when did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary tackling these issues?
It was shortly after I finished playing. I realized some of my injuries were still lingering. Back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, neck pain. All from different times in Paul Hackett era, when I was basically expendable.
When Hackett replaced Robinson [as USC head coach], I had to schedule an appointment just to meet with him. When I finally get in his office, he said, "So, I hear you're transferring." I had never said a word or thought about transferring. It turned out that he did that to about eight other guys—he was trying to get us out and bring in his own recruits. This was the end of my freshman year, and he told me I would never play for him. I had turned down Stanford and Harvard to go to USC for their film school. It really bothered me that he was assuming I was only there to play football.
So during the time he coached, I probably played about ten years of football, almost all of it in practice. We would have three-a-days back then. We'd practice 24 days straight. There were days we'd only have five or six defensive linemen, and I was one of the only guys who knew all the positions on the D line. So I'd sometimes go 50-60 plays in a row in scrimmages. And I played through injuries that most starters would have sat out and allowed to heal. All because I was trying to prove Paul Hackett wrong.
My position coach, Ed Orgeron, didn't like me. He thought I was there to go to school. They used to check on players going to class. Now, I would sometimes miss class to try to find time to sleep if I knew I could get an A in that class. Football plus school is very demanding, and something had to give at some point. But they never checked on me, because they assumed I was going. So when Orgeron would read the list of guys who had missed classes, he would give me the stink-eye for not being on it.
Why did you call your film The Business of Amateurs? That sounds like an oxymoron.
It is an oxymoron. But it also has a double meaning. Amateurism is about not being paid. But the amateur athlete is the product, and everybody in the system is paid: the coaches, administrators, the marketing department. The title has a second meaning in that the "of" is meant to be possessive. It really is our business, as athletes. So it's a call to action. I think change has to start with the players. Unfortunately, by the time players are enlightened, they are out of the college sports system.
[Laughs] I was a little worried that people would search for the film and think it was about cam girls or something.
Are college athletes—at least in the major revenue sports—being exploited by their schools and by the NCAA?
The NCAA says it was founded for two reasons: protect athlete health, and protect athletes from commercial exploitation. But when it comes the second one, what they really mean to prevent others from exploiting the athletic talent that they are commercially exploiting.
When I was playing, I was hyper-aware that Oregon put quarterback Joey Harrington on a billboard in Times Square. Heck, you put a dog on a billboard, and the owner of the dog gets paid.
Many people push back against the idea of exploitation, arguing that athletes should instead be grateful because they are receiving a free education. Free food. Free coaching. Free perks. Free medical care. And so on. When you're a big-time college athlete, is anything free?
No. You're getting paid. That's the scholarship. Sometimes, like if you're flying to South Bend to play Notre Dame, you are putting in 80 hours a week of work. If you break down the scholarship at many schools, athletes are actually making less than minimum wage.
There is a misperceived sense that college athletes are entitled and privileged. People think it's amazing to run out of the tunnel on game day. It is amazing! But it happens three to four dozen times while you're at school. It's fleeting, a small part of the picture. The reality is you go there to work. And having to balance that amount of work with school is really difficult.
Speaking of school, the NCAA also argues that amateurism is necessary because allowing college athletes to be compensated beyond a scholarship would compromise their educations. What do you think of that?
Well, there are a lot people who go to night school while working full-time jobs. [Laughs.]
America is a capitalistic society. But somehow, there is this fairy tale—one the NCAA has done a very good job of making people believe—that college sports are all about the glory. Guys who just love to play.
Of course, like I said, these guys are paid. They're just paid in the form of the scholarship. Are they worth more than that? Given all the money in the system and how everyone else gets paid, of course they are. But people think a grown man—usually at least 18 years of age, we're not talking about child actors—they think for some reason he shouldn't get his value.
In reality, I think race is a factor in this. You look at a lot of these athletes, they are African-American. And it's assumed these black athletes somehow are just lucky to be at the school. That they are not as intelligent. When the fact is they often don't have the have the same opportunities academically, that they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that they are being pushed through the high school system and being used as bargaining chips because of their athletic ability.
The film is full of powerful individual stories about former college athletes, including that of Ed O'Bannon, the former UCLA basketball player who sued the NCAA in a high-profile federal antitrust case over the use of college athletes' names, images, and likenesses. The most powerful story, however, belongs to a former USC football player named Scott Ross, who played along Junior Seau, was later diagnosed with a form of dementia connected to repetitive head trauma, and struggled with depression, anxiety, and alcoholism before dying in 2014 at age 45. How does his story tie into the bigger picture of college sports?
It all started with Scott Ross. I knew about him as a player, even though I had never met him in person. His pictures lined the USC defensive meeting rooms. He was a legend for being a wrecking ball of a linebacker.
So at one point, my roommate says, "Hey, can my buddy crash on the couch for a while?" It turned out to be Scott. He had just lost his job, and been diagnosed with dementia at age 39. He was a shell. His life was spiraling out of control. He ended up staying with us for seven months, and I got to know him pretty well.
I thought, "Wow, look at who he was and where he is now." I had never thought about the long-term repercussions of football before. Not in terms of brain damage. When we went to interview him, it changed the whole film.
Scott would be a jumble of emotions when you'd talk to him, very erratic, all over the place. But when we interviewed him in Texas, that day, it was like God gave him his brain back. He was three hours late—but for the next five hours, he was crisp. Everything he said made sense. When we dropped him off at his hotel at the end, he could barely walk. It was like he was drunk, he was so drained from holding himself together mentally for those five hours.
One year to that day, he passed away. His parents are great people, and his family has endured so much. Not just from losing Scott, but everything they endured up to that point. Until they saw it, they didn't think that our film was real—Scott would talk about a lot of things, and you didn't know what to believe.
I hear fans say all the time, "You signed up for this." I don't think any of us signed up for what happened to Scott.
Given all of the hits to the head you took as a football player, do you worry about your own long-term mental health?
Six months before I started raising money for the film, I was diagnosed with panic disorder. It very well could be related to playing football, to all the subconcussive blows.
Panic disorder is a malfunction of the brain. A very unpleasant sensation. The first time it happened to me, I didn't know what was happening. I thought I had been slipped a drug. I was in a pitch meeting—a boring meeting that was going nowhere. All of the sudden, the back of my head got really warm. The room got long. It's hard to describe—it's as if you lose the ability to control how your thoughts work.
I just wanted to run out of the room. I knew that would look crazy, so I just rode it out. After about 15 minutes, it passed. I was just drenched in sweat. Breathing heavily. Now, there's comfort in being educated on what it is. But when you're in the moment, it's very irrational and hard to mentally push through.
So I'm concerned about the future. I hope my condition isn't the tip of a bigger iceberg, turning into some other form of anxiety or depression. I've chosen to donate by brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Every year, they do a benchmark survey of me. We talk about memory, am I using alcohol or drugs, things like that. I don't know the results, but it definitely makes me aware. Is my speech different? My memory? It's not like Scott Ross woke up one day and his life was different. It was a slow change. I would get calls from Scott at 2 AM. He would say, "If the handle on this bottle was a trigger, I would pull it." My wife would got to work at 5:30 AM, and I would still be on the phone.
Coming forward with my condition was one of the hardest decisions that I've made. Athletes are prideful by nature, and to admit you have a deficiency in an area that most people assume is your identity is very hard. But I know there are other guys out there suffering, and if I can be vocal, maybe they will realize they're not alone. I've had several screenings of the film across the country, and afterwards, I've had about a dozen former teammates come up to me, shake my hand, and whisper, "I have what you have."
The Rio Games just concluded. Once upon a time, the Olympics required participating athletes to be amateurs—but by the 1990s, that went out the window. Today, athletes aren't paid by the Games to participate, but they are largely free to endorse products, have sponsors, and accept compensation from third parties (although certain IOC regulations apply). Many people, myself included, have asked why the NCAA doesn't adopt this model—don't pay athletes salaries, but otherwise let them earn what they can. What do you think of that idea?
The first time we played at Florida State when I was at USC, I remember being in the locker room about three hours before the game. This is what happens during that time: guys take turn going to bathroom and reading the program. That's it! So the program at Florida State, I'm not even joking, there was like 30 [then-Seminoles coach] Bobby Bowden ads. Like, here's Bobby Bowden in front of the lube shop. Come get your car checked out!
I'm sure he's a great guy. But nobody had a problem with that. So to me, when people talk about paying athletes, we don't even need to come up with a system. Just let them make money off their own likeness. The NCAA won't allow that, because they're protecting their brand—a perceived sense of purity that really doesn't exist. If college sports were pure, the coaches and administrators would be doing this as volunteers.
That gets to the Olympics. Originally when they were moving away from amateurism, the [International Olympics Committee] was worried that they would tarnish their brand, too. But all getting rid of amateurism did was make the Olympics bigger and better. Nobody cared that the athletes were in commercials. Nobody has a problem with people getting their value in any walk of life.
So go back to college. The reality is that most of these athletes have their peak value as college athletes, and it's short-lived. Why can't they capitalize on that? Nobody can give me a good explanation.
Your film covers the O'Bannon lawsuit. The NCAA lost and was found to be in violation of antitrust law. Yet panel of appeals judges ruled that it can continue to prohibit athletes accepting any compensation beyond athletic scholarships and a relatively small cost-of-school-attendance stipend. Meanwhile, the national office of the National Labor Relations Board refused to even consider a case that would have allowed Northwestern University football players to unionize. Why do you think our legal system is reluctant to intervene in college sports?
You ever play Jenga? After a while, the pile of blocks gets so high that nobody messes with the pieces on the bottom. That's the foundation of the game. I think everybody is afraid if they move the wrong piece, the college sports system will collapse. In the Northwestern case, they ruled in favor of the players, and then decided not to assert jurisdiction. They didn't want to be the catalyst of a change. Same thing with O'Bannon. They ruled for the players, and then put on a payment cap. Why not cap the coaches and athletic directors?
Once again, I think it comes down to that fairy tale. The idea that somehow things will be ruined. But they show highlights during March Madness with the Coca-Cola logo. It's already commercialized, it's just that the players aren't free to reap the benefits. And like I said before, I think race is a factor. A certain part of America looks at the athletes and says, "Oh, they will just blow [any money] on rims."
I could have made a nine-part series instead of a single movie. About the medical issues, about the money, about education. They're all connected. It really is Jenga. And have you ever seen someone do a power move and take out a bottom block quickly and everything is still standing? I think that could happen. I just don't think anyone has the guts to do that yet.
Some people—like myself—have said the only thing that will really change college sports is a high-profile athlete strike. Like shutting down the Final Four, or college football's national championship game. Is that the kind of Jenga power move you're talking about?
When you're in the moment and put in all that hard work and have the opportunity to win a championship, for a guy to give that up for the sake of maybe—really, being blackballed or ostracized, having fans saying you're ungrateful, how dare you take this away from us—that's hard. You'll catch a ton of heat for doing that. But you know what? They'd make history. Can you tell me who won the 2003 March Madness tournament? I can't. But I will remember [Former Northwestern quarterback and unionization leader] Kain Colter for what he did.
The biggest obstacle is that by the time guys are enlightened and educated—not just worrying about your roster spot, holding on to your friends and families' dreams, grinding and thinking about the moment—you're already done with college.
I also think football might be harder. It's just so many guys to organize. But from what I understand, basketball players once got close to boycotting March Madness. In that sport, all it would take is ten guys to sit out and change everything.
You mentioned Kain Colter. During the Northwestern football unionization effort, it was reported that many alumni and former players were furious with the athletes attempting to form a union. Meanwhile, Colter was ostracized. What do current athletes risk if they speak up about these issues? What about former athletes like yourself?
They risk becoming a pariah in some cases. Kain got a lot of heat. When you're playing, all you know is fighting for playing time. You're committed to your sport, fighting for respect. That's all you do every day when you're not doing schoolwork. To put that at risk is difficult. There's the fear of losing those long-term connection, too. Like at USC, there's the idea that you're a Trojan for life. If you're a part of that Trojan network, they take care of their own. It's very true, and a great thing about the school.
That was one of the things I was scared of making the film. I was worried I'd be misperceived as turning heel on my own school. When I spoke out about Ed Orgeron to Time magazine, I was lit up. People pulled money from the Kickstarter campaign for the film. People were spending five bucks to send me a Facebook message telling me I'm that I was wrong.
It's the sports culture. It's like breaking the athlete code. They thought I was trying to hurt the school. But it's actually the opposite.
So have you shown this film to current college athletes? If so, what did they think of it?
We went to Oregon State. We were told the football team would be there. The associate athletic director showed up to the screening, but the football team didn't. All of the sudden, there was a required event they had to go to. [Laughs] On a Sunday night!
We also had a screening at Drexel. The athletic director was there, and some of the school's athletes. A lot of them came up and said, "Great job. It really hit home. Thank you for doing it." The athletic director said he was enlightened by the film. He wanted to do more for his athletes.
What about USC?
They haven't seen the film. I called them and asked to set up a screening. They said they didn't have a big enough venue. They're 20 feet from the cinema school! [Laughs] When it comes to the academia side of the university, everybody supports what I'm doing. It's easier for them, because they're not on the sports payroll.
I don't think people in sports necessarily know what the film is about. They think we are trying to get rid of sports, or shame people for the sake of shaming. But it's just trying to shine a spotlight so we don't have these injustices in the future. When I'm telling Scott Ross' story, I'm not saying, "Look at what USC did to him." USC didn't kill Scott Ross. It's a cautionary tale of what went wrong, and now we have to change to make sure it doesn't happen again.
We're now aware of concussions and diseases like CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]. There are some very simple solutions for making football athletes safer. Like minimizing contact practices. Like having independent medical staff that doesn't have the coach's interest in mind. But not one conference but the Ivy League has taken that step. To me, right now, it's unforgivable. Twenty years from now, we will have more Scott Rosses, and you won't be able to look back and say you didn't know.
This is a film made out of love. I love my school. I think that's hard for fans to reconcile—they don't want to see how their sausage is made. It was probably the hardest thing for me to reconcile, too. How do I explore the darker side of college athletics, but also show that I'm still as proud to be a Trojan as anyone who as graduated from USC?
I have to give USC credit: I've had discussions with the administrators there, trying to push forward some of the issues I present in the film, like a health plan that would cover athletes for their college sports injuries after they leave school. They haven't ignored me. But they haven't endorsed the film. They're playing it safe right now. Which is, I think, what the NLRB did with Northwestern, and what everyone is doing. But as the gap between the money being made and the rights college athletes don't have gets bigger and bigger, eventually that bubble will pop.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.