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Friday, August 26, 2016
The Business of Amateurs: Suffering Student-Athletes and a Thriving NCAA

The NCAA frequently lauds amateurism and the ideal of the “student athlete.” But in contrast to this idyllic conception, college football is big business. And it is built on the backs of gladiators, football (and basketball) players who are often forgotten, disposable cogs in big-time college sports.
Such is the story Bob DeMars masterfully weaves in The Business of Amateurs. The former USC football player takes viewers on a tour of the college football machine—its gold-plated, garish facilities and its coaches with million-dollar contracts and reimbursed country-club fees.
On the other side of this excess, however, is the players’ penury. More than 80% of student-athletes live below the federal poverty line. While the fair market value of a Division I football scholarship is $137,000 and a basketball scholarship is $290,000, the average scholarship a student receives is $23,000. The players who never play after college (or have short professional careers) have their highest value when they are in college. But beyond educational expenses, the NCAA prohibits payment. In fact, the ongoing O’Bannon case against the NCAA famously was triggered by the UCLA basketball star’s seeing a near-exact replica of himself in a video game, not receiving a penny from the resulting significant revenues.
If not money, what does the student get in return for filling the school’s coffers? Often, not an education. DeMars highlights UNC, with its fake classes, spoon-fed answers, and predetermined majors, which are selected not because of a student’s interest but because they fit the athletic schedule. Although NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from spending more than 20 hours per week on their sport, they often spend double that. Yes, there are successful student-athletes. But as these individuals attest in the movie, they are the exception, not the rule.
Surely, the student-athlete at least gets the certainty of knowing they have a scholarship for four years and their health-care costs covered, right? Well, not really. DeMars recounts the players who have had scholarships revoked for being injured, as well as those who are ungraciously denied health-care coverage for injuries suffered during practice or games. Yes, even those practices in which (despite serious injuries) they are forced to participate. Perhaps in response to recent developments like the O’Bannon lawsuit and Northwestern unionization attempt, these practices are changing. But it should not be controversial to apply them to all student-athletes.
The greatest harms appear in the former student-athletes in their 40s, and even sometimes 20s and 30s: the ones addicted to pain medicine; those not able to hold a steady job; the alcoholics; those suffering from dementia; and those who are depressed and even take their own lives. DeMars talks with leading doctors who explain the science behind the degenerative “CTE” disease from repeated blows to the head, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), concussions, and the 900-1500 “subconcussions” football players suffer each season.
As a result of these findings, the NFL has limited hits in practice. But the NCAA, ironically enough founded as an organization to promote safety, has not, “den[ying] that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes.”
In the past few years, stories about student-athletes as impoverished cogs in the NCAA’s billion-dollar big business machine have spread. DeMars adds to these stories. And he offers a particularly sobering perspective by focusing on the former players whose lives have been upended—if not ended—by injuries. It doesn’t seem right for these gladiators to become a shell of themselves while the NCAA is exploiting their successors for billions. Reform is desperately needed. For everyone who benefits from the gladiators in the ring every week, that is the least we can do.


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