- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Every time he touches a football for the University of Colorado, Jeremy Bloom loses money.

And not just a little.

As one of the world's top freestyle skiers, Bloom could be living large. A little less than Shawn Kemp-at-Sizzler large but big enough to score clothing, equipment and loot from sponsors like couture magnate Tommy Hilfiger.

Yet instead of cashing in, Bloom skis on his own dime. Since joining the Buffaloes last fall, he's turned his back on thousands of dollars in corporate largesse, enough to fund his globe-hopping ski career.

The reason? Because Bloom plays wide receiver and kick returner for the Buffaloes, he's subject to NCAA amateurism rules that prohibit him from endorsing any products based on his athletic ability.

"Jeremy is quite frustrated," said Peter Rush, a Chicago attorney who represented Bloom in a recent lawsuit against the NCAA. "He feels like this is overreaching by the NCAA. What right do they have to regulate his nonfootball life? Or his image? Quite frankly, if the quid pro quo for all this is the [college] education, that's not a very fair bargain."

We couldn't agree more. In fact, we just can't grasp why athletes like Bloom aren't allowed to profit from their talents. And we're not alone.

In Nebraska, state legislators are considering a proposal that would pay a stipend to University of Nebraska football players. A similar bill has been filed in California.

Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy not only supports the idea of an athletic stipend, but also has volunteered a chunk of his $1.1 million annual salary to make it happen.

Even Anita DeFrantz president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles believes that Bloom and his ilk are getting an unfair shake.

"I see no issue with paying college athletes," said DeFrantz, a former college and Olympic rower. "Period."

Better question: Why stop there? We live in a free society. We believe in free markets. Should we subject some of our best and brightest athletes to a sporting philosophy amateurism that runs contrary to both?

To put it another way: Is it really wrong for high school basketball phenom LeBron James to accept a pair of free retro jerseys from the owner of a Cleveland clothing store?

Or is it wrong to tell James that he can't take a $845 handout from someone dumb enough to give it to him?

"Amateurism is an anachronism," said Ronald Smith, a professor emeritus at Penn State and author of "Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big Time College Athletics." "It's old and outdated and doesn't make any sense."

Herein, the case against no-pay-for-play:

It's historical hooey

Amateurism began as a myth. When Victorian-era English aristocrats came up with the concept, they fancied themselves spiritual heirs to the ancient Greeks, who competed for nothing more than the glory of the game and the honor of their peers.

The only problem? Alexander and Co. were as familiar with amateurism as they were with manned space flight.

Indeed, modern archeology suggests that the ancient Olympics were rife with cash bonuses, free meals and boxing bribes. Same as today's nonamateur version.

"There wasn't even a term for amateur in ancient Greek times," Smith said.

In reality, the origins of amateurism had little to do with sport for sport's sake. And plenty to do with sport for the sake of social segregation.

English elites a snooty bunch by any standard scoffed at the lower class practice of paid physical labor. They also sought to avoid athletic competition against the unwashed, work-with-your-hands masses who were thought to have an unfair physical advantage.

The solution? Cast pay-for-play as morally impure, the better to keep the hoi polloi off the field. English universities and athletic clubs quickly took to the idea, which was copied by their status-seeking counterparts across the pond.

Never mind that it was about as American as driving on the left side of the road. Or having a Royal Family, for that matter.

"[Amateurism] wouldn't work in America, because we have this ideology of being equal," Smith said. "But what happened was that Yale and Harvard patterned themselves after Oxford and Cambridge. And they gave us our intercollegiate sports."

It's not academic

Of course, amateurism's proponents no longer advocate an athletic caste system. Rather, they argue that no pay-for-play is essential to the academic experience.

"If you're playing the game for something other than the game, that's not the essence of intercollegiate sports," said Tom O'Connor, athletic director at George Mason. "That's professional sports and outside the proper function of an educational institution."

Maybe so. But since when did making money and getting an education become mutually exclusive?

Plenty of college students work at campus jobs, no less and still make the honor roll. Professors write best-selling books. Basketball coaches appear in eponymous television shows.

None of the above is considered improper. Why should it be different for athletes?

"[It] stems from a desire for sport to serve as a moral and educational force rather than as a commodity," said Mark Dyreson, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State, in an e-mail interview. "We want things both ways. Here at Penn State, we want our athletes to be students but not bookworms who lose to Penn."

If that's the case, then what kind of lessons does amateurism really teach? Probably the wrong ones.

Athletes learn that it's OK for just about everyone coaches, administrators, schools to profit from their hard work. Except them. They also learn that rules are made to be broken. So long as they keep their mouths shut.

Witness Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber, recently indicted on charges of lying to a grand jury about accepting money from a booster while playing at Michigan.

"It just makes wickedness go underground," said Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who introduced the Cornhusker pay-for-play bill. "Players are still getting money and cars, under the table from alumni and boosters. Though all of this chicanery, the university keeps its hands clean. And every wrong message is sent to these young men."

It's unfair

The way Chambers sees it, a stipend is only fair. College football, he argues, is essentially a full-time job. And thanks to the advent of "voluntary" offseason training, it's nearly a year-round occupation.

Yet while Nebraska cashes in the university reportedly made $3.8 million in football profit last year, plus the added benefit of free national advertising Cornhuskers players receive nothing more than the amateur spoils of tuition, room and board.

"These kids are the gladiators," Chambers said. "They're in the arena. People are driven to ecstasy when they hit each other and one of them does not get up. And they're not even paid for it while others rake in millions? Something has to be done."

Others concur. In a 1995 book, former NCAA executive director Walter Byers wrote that amateurism in college sports amounted to "economic tyranny."

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns has promised to sign the Chambers bill if it passes the state legislature. A similar bill was passed in 1988 but vetoed by then-Gov. Kay Orr.

"Everybody goes first class except these student-athletes," Johanns said. "They have to work their hearts out for nothing. I don't minimize the value of the scholarship. But they also have to pay the bills. Let's try to do something fair."

Iowa State's Eustachy would like to see athletes receive something like $100 a week, enough to cover everyday living expenses.

"I think they should [be paid]," he said during last week's Big 12 conference call. "A lot of people get rich off them, including the coaches. … They're not a normal student."

That much is true. After all, normal students are allowed to earn a living any way they see fit, especially if it corresponds with their talents and interests.

Law students intern at local firms. Accounting majors work at banks. Physical education students appear in Playboy's "Girls of the Pac 10" issue (or so we've heard).

By contrast, amateurism prevents athletes from doing the same. Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen appears in local television commercials. How much would former Terrapins basketball star Juan Dixon have made if given the same opportunity?

"I was a music major," DeFrantz said. "Musicians can get paid. [Actress] Jodie Foster went to Yale with my brother. I can imagine that she received residuals from her movies while in school. And it's not an issue."

It's a practical sham

Beyond the fact that athletes aren't paid outright, the current college sports system is about as close to being "amateur" as rap mogul Dr. Dre is to being a board-certified physician. Just ask the Supreme Court.

In 1984, the court struck down an NCAA limit on the number of times a college football team could appear on television, ruling 7-2 that under the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act that some NCAA rules are "purely commercial."

Or ask Penn State's Smith, who played baseball at Northwestern before a short stint as a Chicago White Sox minor leaguer.

"I couldn't see any difference in attitude between playing college baseball and professional baseball," he said. "There's no real reason to have the term amateur. They're not doing it just for the fun of it."

Indeed. College athletes play for scholarships and grants-in-aid that can be worth more than $40,000 funds that aren't available to the rest of the student body.

Semantics aside, that's quid pro quo. Plain and simple.

Likewise, big-time campus sports look an awful lot like their professional counterparts. Think full-time coaches. Training tables. Luxury boxes. High-tech facilities.

To put it another way: How many engineering students get to go to Maui over Thanksgiving?

"We're talking about a high octane, multimillion dollar entertainment business," Chambers said. "Not an extracurricular activity. Not a game. But a very cutthroat big business."

O'Connor disagrees. But even he acknowledges that the line between amateurism and commercial interests has been blurred.

"A student athlete in the high profile sports goes to class all day as a college student," he said. "Then, during the night, they become an entertainer. So they may have an identity crisis."

Given that Maryland's men's basketball team plays before a larger average home crowd than some NBA squads, that's probably putting it mildly.

It's a crutch

If amateur sports aren't really amateur, then what's the point of pretending? Especially when athletes get the short end of the stick?

The answer is economic but not entirely in the way one might expect.

"Professional sports are taxed," Smith said. "Educational institutions are not."

Amateurism also acts as a kind of salary cap for college and high school sports, preventing bidding wars or at least overt ones for the services of star athletes. Because all schools have a semi-equal shot at landing talent, competitive disparities are minimized.

The result? Consider March Madness, in which parity and first-round upsets mean high ratings and humming turnstiles.

"Right now, everyone has the same limits room, board, tuition, fees," O'Connor said. "We try to maintain the principles of amateurism so we don't get into a situation of highest bidder."

Remove amateurism, on the other hand, and college athletics would cease to exist. At least in their current form.

Rich schools would have carte blanche to hoard the best players. Cash-strapped athletic departments might be forced to slash nonrevenue sports. A wave of lawsuits could arise from Title IX and worker's compensation issues.

"It's probably fair and honest to [eliminate amateurism]," Smith said. "But the whole system would break down."

Then again, that might be a good thing. At the very least, Bloom would be free to earn his market value instead of skiing with Colorado's buffalo logo on the side of his helmet, as he did during his gold medal run at the recent World Freestyle Championships.

"There's a great deal of irony in that," Rush said. "People can't believe it. But he loves the games. He's willing to give up the money to live his dream. He should be the poster child for the NCAA. Instead, he's a scapegoat. He can't do what every other student in the school can do, because he's an athlete."

And, at least for now, an amateur. Whatever that means.

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