The NCAA Still Doesn't Make Any Sense to Malcolm Gladwell

In his ongoing writing about the NCAA, which we have discussed before, Gladwell tells the story of an NCAA football player called Ramon McElrathbey:

McElrathbey is a cornerback for the Clemson University football team. He is one of seven children. His mother is a crack addict, and his father has a gambling problem and is no where to be found. He grew up bouncing around foster homes. This summer, he decided--with his mother's consent--to take custody of his 11 year old brother. They now live in a cramped off campus apartment, as McElrathbey tries to be a student, athlete, brother and father simultaneously. When a story was published about McElrathbey in alocal paper, he was deluged with donations and gifts and offers to help. But of course Clemson had to step in and say no. Why? Because receiving any kind of outside financial assistance, if you are an amateur college athlete, is against the NCAA's rules.

Gladwell updates his thoughts and it's hard to argue. (You really should read the whole thing, I'm just quoting a few of his many persuasive thoughts here.):

McElrathbey is an athlete. He is also a student, a brother and, now the legal guardian of his younger brother. The NCAA’s formal mandate is to govern students in their capacity as athletes. But here, in forbidding McElrathbey from accepting outside donations to help him take care of his little brother, the NCAA has extended its jurisdiction to govern McElrathbey in his capacity as a brother and legal guardian...

McElrathbey, the NCAA would say, has to understand that the requirements of amateurism, in his instance, are in unfortunate but unavoidable conflict with the freedom to accept outside financial assistance.

Fine. In theory, I can buy that argument.

But wait. Surely if you want to defend an absolute ethic, you have to defend it absolutely. That’s the way it was in the late 19th century, when the principles of amateur sport were first codified. Back then, the games were free. The coaches were volunteers, and certainly no one was pulling down millions of dollars from Bowl Game appearances. The amateur ideal applied to everyone.

Now? It only applies to athletes. If I’m Oklahoma, I’m allowed by the NCAA to trade on the celebrity created by my football prowess and sign a $500,000 endorsement deal with Nike. But if I’m Oklahoma’s quarterback, I’m not allowed to trade on the celebrity created by my football prowess and make a few extra dollars in my part-time job. If I’m Clemson University, I can pay my men’s football coach $1.1 million a year in salary to coach an “amateur” athletic team. But if my cornerback wants to accept gifts from the public to help raise his little brother, he can’t. Why? Because he happens to play on that “amateur” football team. I repeat what I wrote in that last post. I cannot, for the life of me, make sense of that position.

I’m not advocating the end of amateurism. I think the NCAA killed amateurism long ago, when it decided that this grand noble “ethic” applied only to athletes, and not the coaches and athletic departments and schools they play for.