When the NCAA was established over a century ago, its central mandate was to ensure to the sanctity of “amateurism” in the realm of college sports. The attitude remains stubbornly unchanged today. While the general philosophy of what upholds the NCAA’s existence is relatively laudable — on paper, non-professionals being treated as professionals likely dampens the integrity of student athletics, sure — the general bone to pick regarding the organization’s operations lies in the fact that the social and cultural fabric of American sports has changed dramatically in the century since the NCAA came to being. College sports used to be an intramural outlet for American collegiate students looking to spend their free time somewhat productively. Recruitment wasn’t exactly a reality. Professional athletes made a pittance, oftentimes playing for teams started by factory workers that could barely stay afloat in the long-term. But the reality now? The NCAA rakes in absurd amounts of money, with its most recent broadcast deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting being penned at a valuation of $10.8 billion. Is this the same world of amateurism that the NCAA sought to regulate in 1906? It’s a point of contention for many, but none more so than the athletes, both former and current, that enable the NCAA to sign such deals.
College sports has transformed into a money-making body that allows university football coaches to be the highest paid state employees, while the athletes under their tutelage aren’t even allowed to see a dime. It’s a bizarre reality that “Vice” correspondent Gianna Toboni intimately and comprehensively explores in recent episode, “The End of Amateurism.” Talking both to a variety of former athletes who have been calling for institutional justice, and current collegiate athletic directors (many of whom are vehemently in support of the status quo), Toboni constructs a laudable and steady-handed look at a subject of debate that is (more often than not) painted as being far simpler than reality.
Titled “The End of Amateurism,” the episode openly notes that the end isn’t particularly nigh. Rather, a lot of the episode’s focus lies on the fight to bring upon that end — the rhetoric, its pitfalls and the struggle’s main protagonists — largely former athletes who have been wronged and forgotten by the system that promised them a share of their own spoils. The episode also comes at a pointedly opportune time, with March Madness having just concluded and the NFL Draft just on our horizons — sports are fresh on the mind of the American psyche, so it’s only fair for “Vice” and HBO to strike when most effective.
While many of the viewers this episode may have appealed to probably have a fair handle on the fundamentals of the amateurism debate, rarely are audiences afforded as intimate of a look into the issue as “Vice” provides here. One of the most sobering moments of the episode comes on the heels of Toboni following former Auburn running back Peyton Barber alongside his draft day travails. Projected to be a sixth-round pick in the draft, viewers watch as Barber agonizingly waits until the draft concludes, with no team having called his name. Barber left Auburn as a sophomore due to the possible financial incentives he could offer his family — a common gamble by many college athletes who see it as the only bonafide route toward a better life for themselves and their kin. But as said, such a move is still a gamble, and, as seen through the eyes of Barber, a rather sad one at that. “No one ever considered he wouldn’t get drafted,” remarks Toboni. That much is clear to Barber and his immediate family. Earlier on, Barber notes that he probably wouldn’t have left Auburn so early had he seen some form of compensation as a student athlete. Now he is in a situation far more tenuous that he could’ve expected — and he hopes that doesn’t remain a reality for athletes that come after him.
For a topic touted so often in the public sphere, “Vice” and its sobering, constructive take on the issue seems to be a rare example of what public discourse regarding the amateurism debate should look like. Student athletes have a tenuous journey ahead of them, that much we know. Never letting the spotlight waver on their issues will do them more good than venerating their athletic successes. “Vice” ensures we don’t forget that.