Amateurism Is A Con: The Tragic Consequences of the NCAA’s Broken System

Failing to Keep College Athletes Safe

The NCAA was founded in 1906 to “keep college athletes safe.”[1]  If you consider that too dated, the NCAA’s “About Us” page currently states that they are “a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.”[2]  Let that sink in – by their own statements, the NCAA was created and exists for the exclusive purpose of the well-being of college athletes.

This summer alone, three college football players – Jordan McNair (University of Maryland), Darius Minor (University of Maine), and Braeden Bradforth (University of Kansas) – tragically passed away during or shortly after pre-season workouts.  From 2000 to 2016, 33 players died while participating in NCAA football, only five of which can be attributed to collisions involving physical trauma.[3] As Patrick Hruby explains in Junction Boys Syndrome these deaths are not the only result of reckless, egotistical coaches and trainers going unchecked:

“[T]hree University of Oregon football players were hospitalized for several days after workouts that reportedly included up to an hour of continuous push-ups and up-downs… Or take University of Iowa strength Chris Doyle. In early 2011, an offseason workout meant to determine ‘who wanted to be on the team’ and consisting of 100 squats in 17 minutes followed by sled pushes left 13 football players hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis...Three months after the incident, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz named Doyle his first-ever ‘most valuable coach of the year.’ Today, he’s the highest-paid strength coach in the sport, with a base salary of $725,000.”

This sadistic style of training football players never had a place in college athletics, and with access to all of the information and technology available in 2018,  its continuation is negligent and arguably criminal – not to mention that there is no scientific proof that it improves athletic performance or mental toughness. Maryland head football coach D.J. Durkin does not deserve to coach a team in the California Penal League, let alone high school or college football players ever again.  Neither do the coaches and trainers at any other university implementing such reprehensible “tactics.” As recently as this weekend, ESPN ran a feature article on Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly’s “chaos workouts,” including the incorporation of strobe lights into strength workouts.  Yet the NCAA has remained silent in all of these situations.

Instead, the NCAA is keeping busy with its Commission on College Basketball, and handing down suspensions to 13 athlete-students at UNC for selling their special-edition, football team Jordans.  Guess how many times the NCAA has stepped in to punish a university for risking the health and safety of college athletes?

A quick search will reveal that the NCAA has never punished a university for issues related to player health and safety, so how exactly is the NCAA “dedicated to the well-being” of college athletes?  Short answer: they are not. They have completely and utterly failed at their stated mission. Even one death would be too many, but they are averaging at least two per season over the last 18 years.

If you look through the NCAA’s Health & Safety page, it is reasonable to think that they are employing every precaution to protect their athletes.  With phrases like “Collaborating on Best Practices,” “Keeping Hearts Healthy,” “Ensuring Independent Medical Care,” and “Preventing Injuries,” there might even be people at the NCAA that believe their own con.  The problem is that the NCAA merely issues health and safety “guidelines,” with no accountability. Again, the NCAA has never issued a penalty to a university for violating these “guidelines.”

The answer to why they only issue “guidelines” is simple: if the NCAA begins to actually follow through on their stated mission and enforce health and safety rules, then they create legal exposure if things go wrong.  The status quo creates a strong legal defense, to quote The Big Easy: “We didn’t see nothing. We was home watching TV.”  By issuing guidelines and not rules, the NCAA can blame the institutions for not monitoring their coaches and trainers and following the guidelines, claim they did everything they possibly could, and therefore (mostly) avoid culpability.

This is a grave and tragic element of the con that is “amateurism.”  The status quo risks the lives of athletes, while the NCAA masquerades as a protector offering the opportunity of a lifetime – an opportunity that makes the NCAA rich while exploiting athletes and their families by ensuring they do not share in the financial largesse the athletes generate.  The NCAA passes the responsibility onto its member institutions while sitting in their Indianapolis compound built from the billions of dollars in revenue they generate off the backs and lives of the very players they fail to protect. If the NCAA truly believed in its stated mission, it would immediately issue new rules related to player health and safety, begin conducting investigations into any institution or individual suspected of violating those rules, and punishing them for their infringements.  That is how you keep college athletes safe.

The Historical Basketball League, on the other hand, will not shirk its responsibility.  Prior to recruiting a single player, the HBL has already partnered with a premier sports and entertainment insurance brokerage firm to provide insurance policies to protect each of our athletes.  Rather than allowing coaches and trainers to run rampant, the HBL protects its athletes because without them, we are nothing – something the NCAA long ago forgot.

Why Are Unpaid Players Held to a Higher Standard than Multi-Million-Dollar Coaches?

On Wednesday, the nation watched as The Ohio State University failed spectacularly.  From the minute that Mary Jo White was brought in to lead the investigation, the fix was in.  Her history of wrist-slapping is long-standing.[4] As the Ohio State investigation progressed, we heard terms like “time served” in describing Urban Meyer’s ultimate punishment – something that we found to be morally repugnant.  Meyer is the highest paid public employee in the State of Ohio. He was not serving a jail sentence as the “time served” statement would imply – instead, he was merely given the corporate equivalent of a toddler’s time out. And he did in fact breach his contract for “failing to adhere to reporting obligations and neglecting to personally comport himself in a manner consistent with good sportsmanship and with the moral, ethical and academic standards set by the university.[5]”

Now, this is not to say that Urban Meyer should have been fired – people breach employment contracts all of the time and are not ultimately fired.  But Meyer certainly had an ethical and/or moral responsibility to take the necessary action to fire assistant coach Zach Smith long before this summer.  Meyer often preaches about respecting woman and even has signs posted in the Ohio State locker room demanding it from his players, yet when he had the chance to apologize to Courtney Smith, he instead apologized to “Buckeye Nation,” as did Athletic Director Gene Smith.  In the end, Meyer will only miss three games this season. That is fewer games than the UNC football players who sold their Jordans (four games), fewer games than Todd Gurley for receiving $400 for signing mini football helmets (four games), and fewer games than Terrelle Pryor for swapping Ohio State memorabilia for tattoos (indefinite).  

How is it that the NCAA holds its unpaid players to a higher standard than its multi-million-dollar coaches?  We suggest two possibilities and neither will paint a pretty picture…

  1. While The Ohio State and Urban Meyer may not be adding any fans nationally in the near future, more people than ever will likely tune into their games to root against them.  Locally, “Buckeye Nation” will be as rabid as ever and certainly will not be deterred from packing into the Horseshoe every Saturday this season. The sea of scarlet and grey will not shrink because of this, so why should the NCAA feel obligated to step in, when their bottom line might actually be enhanced by the situation?

  2. Take a moment to consider the racial composition of college coaches versus the players (revenue-generating sports only).  Approximately 65% of athlete-students are black.[6] Meanwhile, approximately 90% of football coaches and 78% of basketball coaches are white.[7]  How is that possible? There is no legitimate explanation that does not include racial bias at best and flat out racism at worst. Do these players that the system so heavily relies on to make money suffer from memory loss and immediately forget everything they know about the game once they graduate or otherwise leave school?[8]   Are they not fit to lead as coaches despite many serving as leaders or captains when they played? Or could it be that once the system is done with their bodies, it spits them out and brings in the next class of chattel? The implicit or explicit racism of the NCAA’s “amateurism” shields these (almost exclusively white) coaches, while punishing the (predominantly black) players.  

Meyer is not the only person to blame here either, and at least when given the chance he finally apologized to Courtney Smith, albeit two days late.  Gene Smith, Zach Smith, and their respective lawyers doubled down – Gene Smith’s lawyer went so far as to say “[t]wo men who don't deserve the public flogging but who agreed to take one for the team so this great University can move forward with all of its amazing athletic and academic initiatives,” while Zach Smith’s lawyer took to victim blaming.[9]  And again, the NCAA sits silent.

The HBL is Ending the Con

You may wonder why this commentary has been entirely focused on football when the HBL is a basketball league.  At the HBL, we know that “amateurism” is a con, and that con is not limited to any one sport. While we are starting with basketball, one of our goals is to prove that college sports do not need “amateurism.”  Some might claim that they love watching college sports for the “purity” or to watch players “play for the love of the game,” but we cannot ignore that the current corrupt system generates over $10 billion annually for the NCAA and its member institutions.  The “purity” left the building the minute that Walter Byers created the word “student-athlete” in the 1950s and began commercializing college sports at the expense of the athletes.   Or maybe even in 1895 when the University of Pennsylvania opened Franklin Field, a stadium that seated 30,000 people at the time for the nation’s top football program.

The con shields the wealthy NCAA and its wealthier members, while exploiting the athletes.  In June 2020, the con will be over and “amateurism” will be exposed for what it truly is. We at the HBL cannot wait for when this new day comes.

For more information, contact press@hbleague.com and visit hbleague.com.

 

[1] See http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety.

[2] See http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/ncaa-101/what-ncaa.

[3] See Patrick Hruby, ‘Junction Boys syndrome': how college football fatalities became normalized, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/aug/19/college-football-deaths-offseason-workouts.

[4] Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter sharply criticizing White’s time at the SEC, see https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2015-6-2_Warren_letter_to_SEC.pdf.  Or look at White’s investigation that resulted in the pathetic decision to only fine Jerry Richardson for his disgusting behavior towards women and minorities.

[5] See Michael McCann, Why Didn't Ohio State Fire Urban Meyer? Breaking Down Its Decision From a Legal Standpoint, https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/08/23/ohio-state-urban-meyer-suspension-contract.

[6] See Putting Lipstick on a Pig: The Con that is “Amateurism,” https://www.hbleague.com/blog/amateurismisacon.

[7] See Congress wants to know how the NCAA is making its diversity pledge a reality, https://www.sbnation.com/2017/10/5/16429368/congress-bonamici-mark-emmert-to-know-how-the-ncaa-diversity-pledge-rooney-rule. Also see Mixed Grades on Race, Gender Report Card for College Sports, http://diverseeducation.com/article/111180/.

[8] No, that only happens when a coach needs to “forget” damning information during an investigation.

[9] See Zach Smith and Gene Smith's Attorney Sound off on Ohio State Investigation, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2792444-zach-smith-gene-smiths-attorney-sound-off-on-ohio-state-investigation. Also see Zach Smith's Attorney Issues Statement Attacking Courtney Smith, https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/08/22/zach-smith-attorney-statement-following-urban-meyer-suspension.