Let’s start with a thoroughly unremarkable story. Boring, even. Back when I was a college freshman – a fuzzy, long-ago era where Netscape Mosaic was as wondrous and new as iPhone thumb scanning – I worked at the university bookstore. Peeling labels off unsold textbooks. Packing textbooks into cardboard boxes. Pocketing a paycheck. The last part, I guess, made me a professional – yet at the same time I was paying income taxes as shipping clerk, I also was a student, reading and studying some of those textbooks. Oh, and I also spent a lot of time playing basketball at the rec center, which made me a shipping clerk-cum-student who played sports.
The end. Told you it was a boring story.
Of course, there’s a reason I’m sharing. I think my college experience might blow National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert’s head clear off, like in “Scanners,” leaving nothing behind save a puff of smoke and his immaculate, indefatigable, downright Gingrichian coif. After all, here’s what Emmert had to say in defense of college sports amateurism – now and forever – during a Monday forum at Marquette University:
“One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals. Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”
Rule of thumb: If your best argument for maintaining a morally bankrupt status quo is to retreat into semantic tautology – as opposed to, you know, making moral arguments – then maybe you don’t have an argument in the first place. Honestly, it’s a wonder Emmert didn’t cause the heads of his audience to go Mentos-in-a-cola-bottle, given the sheer inanity of his statement:
1. College sports can’t change because then it would be different.
Well, yes: By definition, “something different” generally is both the point and outcome of change.
2. College athletes can’t be paid, because if they were, they’d be professionals, and if they were professionals they wouldn’t be “student-athletes.”
Again, this is correct: If college athletes were allowed to be paid the same way college coaches and administrators and NCAA presidents and the kids who work at the cafeteria are, at least some of them would make money, and since making money is prohibited by the legal fiction that is the “student-athlete,” those athletes would no longer qualify for: (a) being screwed out of workers’ comp if and when they get hurt; (b) a spiffy hyphen.
Still, the real coup de grace of Emmert’s amateurism defense comes in the final sentence: This is about students who play sports. Agreed. College sports are, in fact, about students who play sports. Only what does that have to do with a group of schools colluding to decide who gets to keep the money generated by those sports? Amateurism isn’t just a dubious fiction, it’s a dubious fiction built on two intelligence-insulting premises:
1. College students who play sports are somehow fundamentally different, and therefore deserving of different economic rules, from college students who do not play sports;
2. The education of college students who play sports – indeed, their very status as students – somehow depends on them specifically not being allowed to be paid for playing sports, and/or any notoriety they achieve through said playing.
Do either of these ideas make sense? Do they even hold up to cursory examination, a quick, logical stop-and-frisk? (Note: rhetorical questions). Back to my boring story. I boxed books for the university. I was paid for it. Later on, I won some journalism awards that included cash prizes. Just like the tens of thousands of other college students who work campus jobs each and every year, the school-supplied money in my pocket in exchange for services performed had absolutely no impact on my standing as a student or the quality of my education. If I studied, I passed; if I screwed around, I flunked. The situation was utterly ordinary, entirely non-controversial. On the Spring day I filled out my first 1040-EZ form – and later, when I paid gift taxes on that prize money – I did not receive a two-month label-peeling suspension. Emmert did not break through my wall a la the Kool-Aid Man, flaming stone tablets in hand, castigating me for violating his guiding principles via my heretical conversion into that basest of creatures, the paid employee.
Why should allowing the likes of Allen Iverson – then a classmate of mine – to be paid for his campus job be any different?
Enrolled at a university? You’re a student. Play sports at that university? You’re a student who plays sports. Your employment status is irrelevant, except in the eyes of the NCAA and its member schools. Only there’s nothing principled about their so-called guiding principles. There’s no principle at all. Just empty rhetoric and philosophical sleights-of-hand. Nonsensical claims of but … but … but … education! Grating, repeated references to “the collegiate model,” which is about as real as a Yeti. Go through my archives, and you’ll find a half-dozen concrete reasons why amateurism deserves to join Baby on Board stickers and leech-based medicine in history’s dustbin; on the other side of the argument, Emmert offers airy oral flatulence. Which is hardly surprising. He’s defending a phantom.
Only I know better. Everyone who ever drew a paycheck as a resident assistant or laboratory postdoctoral student knows better. We worked. We studied. Some us of played sports, albeit mostly badly. We were not playing a “dirty game.” We did not require spiffy hyphens. Nobody’s head exploded.