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Dick Harmon: College amateurism outdated like Olympics?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 8:37 p.m. MDT

PROVO — BYU punt returner JD Falslev's last day of summer work came on Thursday. In the hot June and July sun, he gathered range balls and took care of the carts at Sleepy Ridge Golf Course in Orem for 15 to 20 hours a week.

In a few days, he'll return to what the Cougars pay him to do with tuition, books, scholarship checks, Nike gear, shoes, per diem money on road trips and all the accessories that come with playing major college football.

Falslev's summer job gave him some pocket change and might buy him some school clothes — if that.

I bet there are some folks in Provo who'd buy Falslev lunch or a round of golf if he'd just hang out with them and talk football now that camp starts next week.

But that is a no-no. He is an amateur college football player.

Is amateurism dead?

In the Olympic Games, which began its latest edition this week in London, it has been dead for a long time with inclusion of professional athletes.

In the NCAA, amateurism tries to live on.

And it's kind of a joke.

The idea floats along in the NCAA with a misused ideal that bucks U.S. labor laws. It rides high on the spine of a set of rules as thick as a telephone book to control and inhibit athletes so their abilities can be cornered, marketed and sold by the school.

NCAA rules are designed to restrict what football and basketball players can do with their own image, reputation and skills — as the NCAA and universities then collect all the money from gate receipts and TV contracts for themselves.

For half a century, the Olympics held onto an idea that only amateurs could compete in the Games. Purists said if we paid athletes, the Games would topple within a decade.

Instead, what we witness in coming weeks is a billion-dollar extravaganza. It's never been more popular or successful, and TV networks clamor to bid for the rights to air the events.

It's time for the NCAA to allow its athletes to earn some of the spoils, according to Patrick Hruby of the Washington Times. He has some great points in a Friday piece titled "The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism."

If Michael Phelps is allowed to make a bundle of money off his Olympic exploits, why isn't a guy like Falslev or Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, if some business is willing to pay them for appearances, photographs or autographs?

Because the NCAA doesn't allow it.

Nobody's saying colleges have to pay their athletes a salary aside from their education. But if a talent can draw a few shekels on the side, what's the harm?

The main problem, as I see it, is colleges would then get into bidding wars in recruiting by promising revenue arrangements by boosters or other businesses. The SEC, which some argue is doing that now, would have a heyday.

But isn't that free enterprise?

The clock may have just run out on the idea of pure amateurism. It doesn't exist. We do currently pay college players with expensive educations. We then restrict them from earning money by doing what Falslev did this summer, a part-time job picking up golf balls in a field.

In the article by Hruby, he takes us back to the beginnings of amateurism, a puritan idea hatched in old England.

"Specifically, snooty British elites who enjoyed rowing, winning and keeping the unwashed day-laboring masses at arm's length," is where the idea came from.

According to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, "Amateurism really started when the people who were rowing boats on the Thames for a living started beating all the rich British aristocrats. That wasn't right. So they started a concept of amateurism that didn't exist in ancient Greece, extending it more and more to the notion of being a gentleman, someone who didn't work for a living and only did sport as a hobby."

This idea was copied by Harvard, Yale and other American schools, which gave birth to college sports. Some historians say college sports and then the NCAA had its roots in this idea which had less to do with lofty purism of amateurism than it did with enforcing a social caste system.

No wonder, in the extreme, we have the father of former Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton allegedly shopping his son to colleges for $180,000.

BYU, Utah and Utah State wouldn't have to pay athletes; it wouldn't be a mandatory thing, if the NCAA let go of restrictions on athletes. It would be a matter of allowing them to be paid.

The argument against paying athletes is that education is somehow a high and lofty mission by universities and the athletes are part of the pomp and ceremony, Saturday's extra-curricular activities.

Ummmmm. Aren't we way past that with million-dollar TV contracts?

Professors get paid at universities. So do other students who have jobs as they study and get degrees. But it's almost comical how much the NCAA prohibits what a football or basketball player can do to benefit financially off his own talents.

I sat on press row this winter in the Marriott Center when Sacramento Kings rookie Jimmer Fredette sat in front of me. When a Nu Skin commercial came on the giant screen and showed a clip of him making a shot in a Cougar uniform, he turned to somebody and said, "How often do they play that?"

He had a good point.

For making that shot, for wearing that uniform, for making that exciting moment, Nu Skin paid BYU money for airing that commercial, but Jimmer didn't receive a dime.

There was a long line of folks who made Jimmer money before Jimmer could.

It's like that all over the country on campuses from Westwood to Coral Gables.

What we have with amateurism in college sports today is hypocrisy and a lot of corruption. The numbers would be surprising if the truth were known of how many athletes are already receiving under the table compensation in one way or another.

email: dharmon@desnews.com, TWITTER: Harmonwrites

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