The Business of Amateurs (Kino Lorber, NR)

It’s a straightforward, fact-based documentary, nothing fancy, that concentrates on presenting its case in a compelling manner.

One could describe college sports in the United States as a business where everyone gets paid but the players—you know, those people taking the physical risks and without whose efforts the whole enterprise would collapse. Amateurism isn’t a strong concept in big-time sports these days: Even the Olympics have allowed professionals to compete for decades. A notable exception to this—The NCAA, the governing body for big-time college sports in the U.S.—sees things differently: while coaches and universities may make millions from college sports, players are barred from receiving more than, basically, expense money (tuition, room and board, etc.), in order to preserve their amateur status and thus eligibility to compete in NCAA events.

The NCAA places a value on an athlete’s amateur status somewhat akin to that of virginity for an unmarried women in the Victorian era. Perhaps that’s no accident, because the concept of organized amateur sports dates back to 19th century England and was developed to spare upper and middle class men from having to compete against men from the working class. Of course they didn’t put it that way, instead inventing a lot of rot about their pure love of sport, but the truth is that it takes money to be able to play for free, and they had it while many potential competitors did not.

The Business of Amateurs, written, directed, and narrated by Bob DeMars, examines the underside of the bright, shiny face the NCAA likes to present to the world. DeMars was a scholarship football player at USC, where he enjoyed the experience of big-time college football and graduated with his degree. At first, he considered it to be a fair exchange—trading his services on the football field in return for a free education—but as injuries from his playing days started to give him more trouble, and he reflected on the growing list of former players who died young and were revealed to have brain damage, he began to wonder if there were some costs he didn’t know about when he signed up to play.

DeMars includes a number of voices to make a compelling case that the status quo is simply not acceptable. Former USC football player Scott Ross embodies the physical and mental costs of playing football—still a young man when interviewed, he was already suffering from many of the symptoms of brain damage, including anxiety, depression, and confusion (he killed himself at age 45). Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and current President of the national College Football Players Association, points out that the NCAA by design represents the interests of colleges, not players, and hence is not terribly committed to the concerns of athletes. Sports economist Andy Schwarz points out that the primary function of the NCAA, in terms of college athletics, is to act as an economic cartel. Former UC Berkeley rower/current graduate tutor Kirsten Hextrum speaks to the many demands placed on college athletes which often results in their being shortchanged on the academic education which is ostensibly their first priority. There are many more, and their collective effect is devastating.

Several recent films have dealt with issues of head trauma and football, including the documentary League of Denial (2013) and the fictionalized Concussion (2015). While The Business of Amateurs offers a good overview of the issues, its specific contribution is its focus on college football and includes the risks of head trauma as one issue within the economic exploitation of college athletes. It’s a straightforward, fact-based documentary, nothing fancy, that concentrates on presenting its case in a compelling manner. Most of the discussion centers on football, with brief forays into other sports.

Football is a big business in America, and I’m not expecting it to disappear any time soon. Similarly, everyone who is getting paid in college sports is unlikely to share with those who aren’t, unless forced to do so, and the NFL is unlikely to start picking up the tab for a system that serves, free of charge, as a minor league for them. Still, getting this information out to the public is important, and The Business of Amateurs does exactly that. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Business of Amateurs is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. The only extra on the disc is the film’s trailer.




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