Today we pause to remember the purely amateur college athlete.
Those of you gathered here know fondly of whom we speak. The type of person endowed with tremendous talent and thirstful ambition. With power, or flexibility, or speed. And with civic commitment to boot. Who inspired the young to stay disciplined in the moment and the old to keep faith in the future.
Any pure amateur might have aspired to turn pro — to collect the hardware, the recognition, the glories mounting in the millions — but such a person also understood the odds of the arena and the ravages of time on the human form. So the amateur yearned above all for a purpose beyond sports, and for education as a means to achieve it.
The purely amateur college athlete died last week at the age of mumbledy-six. (The pure amateur was never honest about age.)
The U.S. Supreme Court itself did the deed. Ruling in NCAA v. Alston, it found that the National Collegiate Athletic Association cannot limit the education-related incentives — paid internships, scholarships, supplies — that schools use to compete for recruits.
But the truth is the pure amateur long had languished. While some promising athletes may have used a few years of college to build their brands before turning pro, and while others bypassed the experience entirely, most of them wound up serving as the uncompensated backbone of a multibillion-dollar industry of merchandising and broadcast revenues. Their schools kept the spoils, at least the sums they didn't blow on coaching.
The court merely delivered the coup de grâce to an ideal. It was a merciful death, and it was time.
Most people understand the word "amateur" as being the pure opposite of "professional." The logophiles at Merriam-Webster.com declare that "in sports it may also suggest not so much lack of skill but avoidance of direct remuneration." They add: "The earliest sense of amateur … is strongly connected to its roots: the word came into English from the French amateur, which in turn comes from the Latin word for 'lover' (amator). This has led some people to assume that the word is properly used only in the sense 'one who performs something for love rather than for money.' "
For the love of the game.
The court was unmoved by such sentimentality. The issue for justices, Neil Gorsuch wrote for all nine of them unanimously, was merely to decide whether a lower court had properly applied the principles of antitrust law when it ruled against the NCAA. And it had.
An excellent opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh declared. Why stop with education-related compensation? "The bottom line is that the NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year," Kavanaugh wrote. He all but cheered on the next case.
But we're not here to talk about the court. We're here to savor the memories of the pure college sporting experience. Like when Southern Methodist University paid players under the table. Or when a University of Miami academic adviser helped players falsify applications for Pell Grants. Or when the University of Minnesota was the setting for academic fraud. Stuff like that.
One may argue that the purely amateur college athlete will live on, just in smaller venues, at smaller schools. That may be so for the moment. But a bill in Congress would allow college athletes to unionize. The play would formally become work.
The door is now open for the reincarnation of amateur athletics. Perhaps one day we'll recognize a new thing like a league of superschools that pay players and wonder how it was ever different. Perhaps we'll look with regret on the cancellation of sports that don't plump revenues, or on a backsliding in gender parity. But what we have for now is a college sports dybbuk — a wandering soul lumbering in a wasted frame.
So, yes, today we pause to remember the amateur college athlete, as a concept, as it existed — in our dreams.
So long, pure amateur. We hardly knew you.