That first Olympic marathon caught the public’s imagination to a startling degree, especially in Greece itself. Incentives included clothing, wine, a vast amount of chocolate and free haircuts for life at local barbers.
–David Arscott, “The Olympics”
What you read above is the solution to last Sunday’s NY Times acrostic, something that echoes what David Wallechinsky said in the must-see documentary “The Business of Amateurs” that opens as VOD, including ITunes, on Friday, August 26th. Wallechinsky, the president of The International Society of Olympic Historians, points out that even the original Olympics were hardly an amateur affair. The participants were supported substantially by patrons and lived a life of comfort.
Amateurism, to put it bluntly, was an innovation of the British upper crust that sought to keep the working class riffraff out of sports in the late 1800s. It included many different incentives to the wealthy boys who took part in sports, especially crew. A typical award might be a silver cup that was equivalent to a year’s wage for a factory worker.
“The Business of Amateurs” addresses all of the major crises facing collegiate sports today, including the corporate greed of the NCAA, the hardships faced by football and basketball players—the big ticket gladiators—whose scholarships are mere crumbs compared to the profits they generate, and most critically the risks that football players take in a violent sport that can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the damage to the brain that can lead to early onset of dementia, Lew Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Parkinson’s, and depression so deep that it can force men to kill themselves as linebacker Junior Seau did.
Among the athletes interviewed by director and narrator Bob DeMars is Scott Ross, who played linebacker alongside Seau for the University of Southern California. Throughout the film, we hear from Ross who is battling the same kind of depression that Seau faced and for the same reasons. The only relief he can get from his symptoms is alcohol that can temporarily quiet the demons that plague him. Before the onset of the symptoms, he was making a good life as a businessman with a wife and kids. Toward the end of the film, we hear the message from Ross’s current girlfriend (his alcoholism had destroyed his marriage) that she had left on DeMars’s answering machine. He was found dead in a car next to a church, the result of a toxic mixture of alcohol and pain killers.
DeMars was uniquely qualified to make such a film since he was a defensive lineman at USC from 1997 to 2001. Not only has he the insider’s knowledge of how the NCAA exploits football players; he is concerned about the possibility that he too might be experiencing the consequences of one concussion too many. We see him talking to his psychiatrist about the panic attacks he had begun to experience. She replies that this could definitely be connected to brain damage.
DeMars is a big blonde bear of a man whose presence in the film has a Michael Moore quality. If Moore found it nearly impossible to meet with Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, DeMars has the same problem setting up an appointment with Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA. A phone call does not get through after repeated tries and when DeMars goes into the lobby of their headquarters, they throw him out.
Compared to the NCAA, the NFL is practically saintly. Or maybe, it is just that it is more honest since it openly operates as a profit-making enterprise. If you get injured in a football game at the pro level, you will still be paid. If you get an injury playing for a big-time athletic program on the Division One level, you just might lose your scholarship. The football players are at the total mercy of the administration that despite all the blather about student-athletes considers them to be virtual slaves of the university. You get room and board and the adulation of fans but that hardly pays the bills. When one student tells a radio interviewer that he can’t pay for groceries, some good Samaritan leaves a bundle on his doorstop. That picayune gift got him thrown off the team.
Another athlete, a Black wrestler from Minnesota, puts up a rap video on Youtube complaining about exploitation. He is told to take it down by the school because his name belongs to them, not him. Years after a UCLA basketball player has retired from the game, he learns that the NCAA sold his image to a video game manufacturer without his permission. He files suit against the game maker and wins. Although everybody hates Johnny Manziel for obvious reasons, the documentary points out that he was outspokenly against the NCAA’s cartel control over his labor. Texas A&M made millions off of his stardom but he got in trouble for earning small change selling memorabilia with his signature.
Probably the most disgusting aspect of this big business pretending that it was a nonprofit is how it short shrifts poor black men from getting a decent education when they are at a place like the University of North Carolina that set up classes in African-American studies exclusively for their mainly Black athletes, some of whom were reading at a 3rd grade reading level. Through the connivance of various professors, they always got passing grades even though they were meaningless. One U. of North Carolina professor named Mary Willingham got fed up with the charade and went public. Needless to say, the school initially denied her charges just as they would deny any responsibility for CTE. In essence, the top administrators only cared about raking in the dough. Although the film did not get into the problem of athletes and sex crimes, Baylor University is a prime example of how administrators look the other way when athletes are guilty of crimes. As long as they are generating revenue, who cares if a coed gets raped. Ken Starr, who went after Bill Clinton for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky, was the president of Baylor college when the football team was acting practically like ISIS in a Yazidi village. Starr tried to keep the sex assaults a secret to protect the school’s revenue generating machine. The hypocrisy reaches biblical proportions.
Towards the end of the documentary, there’s a hopeful note about athletes forming a union that can stand up for their rights, something that got started at Northwestern University, which ironically has the highest graduation rate of any major school. In March 2014 the NLRB decided that the athletes were really employees of the university and gave them the green light. Unfortunately, the board reversed itself a year later. This was a unanimous overruling that included the members of the board appointed by Democratic presidents.
As it happens, I saw “The Business of Amateurs” the very day this same NLRB decided that Columbia graduate students had the right to unionize. Let’s hope they don’t change their mind a year from now. Not only is this a good thing for grad students. It might have ramifications for football players. Columbia might have a crappy football program but the initiatives taken by student activists might have the beneficial side-effect of helping our modern day gladiators.
If you’ve seen “Hoop Dreams”, “At All Costs” will seem familiar at first since it is focused on African-American high school basketball players competing to get an athletic scholarship. But unlike “Hoop Dreams”, the subjects of this worthy documentary that opens as VOD on September 20th are relatively middle-class. If the “Hoop Dream” players are desperately trying to find a way out of poverty, those in “At All Costs” are much more trying to achieve a dream that they have nourished since the age of six in some cases. Like trying to win “The American Idol” contest, landing a starting position as a point guard for the aforementioned University of North Carolina might lead to a multimillion dollar contract with an NBA team right after freshman year if the athlete takes his team to the NCAA final four.
In this instance, the players are competing in the AAU, which has become the primary audition spot for top players. Have you heard of the AAU? I hadn’t and I say that as someone who has sports talk radio on at least two hours a day. It stands for the Amateur Athletic Union that was formed in 1888 and that is much of a fiction when it comes to amateurism as the NCAA. Under the auspices of the AAU, companies like Nike and Adidas organize tournaments during the summer when stand-out players compete before the watchful eyes of people like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the American professionals who trampled over the competition in the Brazil Olympics.
The film is focused on one AAU team called the Compton Magic that is coached by Etop Udo-Ema, a former Division One basketball player and quite open about his involvement in the AAU. It is all about the money. He gets all sorts of perks from Nike and Adidas and preaches to his players about doing well in the summer games in the AAU circuit. It is their big chance to get rich and famous. At least you can give Udo-Ema credit for being honest, as opposed to the bullshit artists running big-time basketball programs.
Among the players profiled in the film is Parker Jackson-Cartright, a soft-spoken and appealing personality whose father treats him in the same way someone might treat a racing thoroughbred. It is his ticket to success as well as his son’s.
The Jackson-Cartright family’s life revolves around the basketball programs in high school and the AAU. The dad attends all the games and is philosophical about his son continuing to compete after a bad foot injury. He muses, “We have to put it all on the line” even if putting it all on the line might mean a permanent injury.
For athletes like Parket Jackson-Cartright, school is simply a place where he can ply his trade. With every waking hour devoted to shooting hoops, there is not much time to spend on enjoying his youth or getting deep into his studies. If the injury to his foot would have kept him out of a top sports program, he would likely end up in a state school and in an uncompetitive position academically.
Even worse is that focusing every fiber of his being on basketball makes such players one-dimensional as Michael Connor, an African-American psychology professor at Cal State, Long Beach, points out in the film. Upon hearing this, I wondered if this was why Michael Jordan is so apolitical. If your body and soul are consumed by basketball, maybe you lose track of what they once called keeping your eyes on the prize.
It also made me wonder if Connor was referring to Herbert Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional-Man”, a book that was popular in the 1960s and influenced many young radicals including Angela Davis who was Marcuse’s student at Brandeis.
Have you read “One-Dimensional Man” that was written in 1964 and that can be read online? It holds up rather well.
The society of total mobilization, which takes shape in the most advanced areas of industrial civilization, combines in productive union the features of the Welfare State and the Warfare State. Compared with its predecessors, it is indeed a “new society.” Traditional trouble spots are being cleaned out or isolated, disrupting elements taken in hand. The main trends are familiar: concentration of the national economy on the needs of the big corporations, with the government as a stimulating, supporting, and sometimes even controlling force; hitching of this economy to a world-wide system of military alliances, monetary arrangements, technical assistance and development schemes; gradual assimilation of blue-collar and white-collar population, of leadership types in business and labor, of leisure activities and aspirations in different social classes; fostering of a pre-established harmony between scholarship and the national purpose; invasion of the private household by the togetherness of public opinion; opening of the bedroom to the media of mass communication.