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An Intimate Look at the Amateurism Debate

With the Final Four looming, HBO’s ‘Vice’ shows sports fans the human side of the pay-for-play saga that still hangs over college sports — and that rages particularly fiercely every March

Gianna Toboni with running back Peyton Barber. (Courtesy HBO)
Gianna Toboni with running back Peyton Barber. (Courtesy HBO)

For more than a century, amateurism has been the engine that has driven intercollegiate athletics. When the NCAA was founded in 1906, its first set of bylaws dictated that each college should “enact and enforce such measures as may be necessary to prevent violations of the principles of amateur sports.” While that reality has remained stubbornly intact, the wider sports context has changed considerably: In 1906 professional baseball players weren’t even making 10 grand a season, and college sports were essentially intramurals. Now, NCAA athletics is a billion-dollar industry, and the stakes of the amateurism label are much higher than they were a century ago.

The blowback has risen in conjunction with the revenue. As collegiate athletics has morphed from groups of dudes butting heads in the mud into a money-making machine that keeps television sets nationwide aglow, more and more people have taken critical looks at the 100-year-old model. The outrage tends to be particularly loud each March, when the NCAA makes more than a billion dollars off of the NCAA tournament. On Friday night, HBO will air one such examination in a half-hour edition of Vice called “End of Amateurism.” The episode dives into the experiences of several athletes craving financial justice — including former Auburn running back Peyton Barber and four-star high school basketball prospect David Beatty — while juggling commentary from athletic directors and other collegiate executives who are invested in maintaining some version of the status quo. It’s an informative, fairly handled look at an issue that can often seem black and white, but is deceptively nuanced.

“We wanted to give equal time to both sides,” Vice correspondent and producer Gianna Toboni tells me over the phone. “We wanted to get to know two student athletes [Barber and Beatty] intimately … and we wanted two examples of schools [Texas Tech and Michigan State] where we could get not just sound bites from coaches, but really be there.”

Though the episode is called “End of Amateurism,” it’s more about the ending of amateurism — the fight, the process — than the practice’s ultimate demise. Because while the cracks have been showing for a while now, we’re not quite at the end yet. Three years ago, Northwestern football players were awarded the right to unionize by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board. Then, just over a year later, the full NLRB reversed the ruling. Recent tweaks to the amateurism model have included the NCAA allowing schools to give athletes unlimited food and drink benefits, after Shabazz Napier complained about going hungry during the Final Four, and allowing colleges to award modest cash stipends to student athletes. Those improvements are definitely worth something — I’d kill for some free snacks at my job (cough cough) — but they’re stepping stones, not victory.

Avid HBO watchers may remember that two years ago John Oliver did his own segment on NCAA amateurism on Last Week Tonight. That was not long after O’Bannon v. NCAA, which at one point in time looked like it could upend the NCAA’s system but ended with a more modest result when a judge allowed schools to cover cost-of-living expenses and cost-of-attendance scholarships for athletes, along with other benefits. Now, another case, Jenkins v. NCAA, is seeking to further disrupt the current model. Though Toboni positions the case as a possible death knell for amateurism, Vice and other outlets may still be doing similar segments this time next year, because if amateurism is dying, the death appears likely to be as slow and drawn out as possible due to the amount of money and history protecting the preexisting arrangement.

While many viewers are familiar with the broad strokes of the amateurism debate, they rarely get to see the issue explored so intimately. In one scene, four-star basketball recruit Beatty stares at the collection of sneakers from brands like Under Armour and Nike that he’s amassed at various showcases and events. He estimates that they’re worth thousands of dollars — enough to grant his struggling family some much-needed relief — but notes that he can’t sell them because doing so would mean risking an NCAA violation and forfeiture of his amateur status.

In another scene, the crew follows Barber to his draft-night gathering, as he prepares to celebrate the beginning of his NFL career. The honor roll student left college after his sophomore year due to financial considerations, thinking, like so many before him, that a pro career could bring him and his family a better life.

“No one ever considered he wouldn’t get drafted,” says Toboni. “Us, his family and friends, I think even him.”

In a shock to nearly everyone, Barber, who was projected to be a sixth-round pick by, would end up having to sign as a free agent. And though he’s since earned some time on the field as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he saw an agonizing amount of money and security slip away each time a drafting team failed to call his name. His wait on draft day is one of the more powerful parts of the episode.

Of course, Barber’s situation is mirrored by countless other cases of athletes choosing to leave school early to pursue not only their dream of playing professionally, but the pay day that leap could bring. Early in the episode, Barber says that he would have stayed in school if he’d been compensated for playing college football. Maybe, for the scores of athletes like Barber, that choice could become a reality if the Jenkins case ends up being the one that ends amateurism. But we’ll have to wait — and, more than likely, wait and wait and wait — for that day to arrive.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.