The new documentary The Business of Amateurs argues that the National Collegiate Athletic Association generates billions of dollars for big-time college sports programs while compromising the education, health and futures of the unpaid athletes it profits from. It’s a familiar argument that has gained more traction in recent years. But The Business of Amateurs is billed as the first documentary that challenges the NCAA “from the perspective of former student-athletes.”
The documentary features interviews with former college players who feel they have been let down by the NCAA and the colleges they attended, with one former player, Scott Ross, becoming the film’s emotional center. Ross, who showed signs of dementia believed to have been the result of repeated head injuries, died before the documentary was completed.
The film, which is available today on streaming platforms including iTunes and Amazon, also showcases the artistic skills of many former athletes. A former Oregon State University football player animated segments of the documentary, a former Princeton University baseball player composed the film’s score and a former University of Minnesota wrestler -- who lost his NCAA eligibility for using his own name when promoting his music career -- wrote the song that plays over the end credits. The documentary was directed by Bob DeMars, a former football player for the University of Southern California.
DeMars responded to questions about his film and the current state of big-time college athletics.
Q: Your film is very critical of the NCAA and how college athletes, particularly those playing revenue sports like football and basketball, are treated. As a former athlete, what led you to make this documentary?
A: About nine years ago, my roommate asked if his buddy could crash on the couch for a while. My roommate’s buddy was USC legend Scott Ross, the linebacker who played next to Junior Seau at USC 10 years before I played there. He was a legend and a human wrecking ball that played in three Rose Bowls, and his pictures lined the halls and defensive meeting rooms at USC. When I met him in person, he was a shell of his former self. He was struggling with depression and anxiety, and at the age of 39 he was diagnosed with dementia.
That was the first time I really began to question the long-term repercussions of football.
I still had several lingering injuries -- knees, neck, back, shoulder -- from playing college football, and I realized that the cost of my injuries might one day outweigh the benefits of my education. Many would respond to this aspect with, “You signed up for it.” I understood the sentiment when it came to my other injuries, because football is an inherently violent sport, but I completely disagreed when it came to the head injuries and potential risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Scott Ross was a legend at USC, but his condition made me take a hard look at how we arrived at this point. That’s when I started researching for the film.
Q: As your research progressed, was there anything you learned that surprised you?
A: When I started the film I was really focused on the hypocrisy of the system. The more I researched the history of the NCAA, the more I discovered how far the organization had really wandered from the initial purpose it was founded on. The NCAA was originally created to protect the welfare of the college athlete, but the NCAA now denies this responsibility.
The NCAA was also founded to prevent commercial exploitation, but I discovered that their current intent is to prevent others from exploiting the talent that they are commercially exploiting. While we were initially focused on the hypocrisy of the NCAA, we ended up with a story about college athletes and the undermining of their rights. I hope their compelling stories will resonate and help spark long-overdue changes in the flawed system.
Q: This film joins a growing body of work criticizing the NCAA and the idea that college athletes must be amateurs. Do you think people are starting to become more aware of some of the problems that might be inherent in this system?
A: When we started making the film, we received some pushback from fans who thought that the intent of the film was to pay players. Many people still want to believe in the fairy tale of amateurism and that these guys are playing for the love of the sport. If that’s true, then the coaches aren’t playing because they love it, because they are very well paid. America is a capitalistic country, but somehow paying a college athlete has become the exception to this ideal.
Recently, with the PBS documentary League of Denial and Sony’s Concussion with Will Smith, many people have learned that these young men are risking their long-term mental health. This has caused many people to reconsider the fairy tale.
Q: At the same time, the immense popularity of these sports points to the fact that many fans are not losing much sleep over these issues. Do you think too many people are happy to keep just watching football and basketball games without really considering the human costs?
A: There are some fans that don’t want to know where their meat comes from and how the cow gets butchered.
While the film has had an immensely positive response from viewers, there has also been a lot of ambivalence after viewing the film. I think that these mixed emotions are the signs of growing pains in a system that is long overdue for an overhaul. As the money continues to grow at an exponential rate in college sports, athletes’ rights are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Q: When people talk about the NCAA and amateurism, many think of the conversation in terms of paying athletes. Is this about more than just swapping a scholarship for a paycheck?
A: The Northwestern athletes [who attempted to unionize] were not seeking a salary; they were seeking rights: financially, academically and medically.
Financially, the film shows the billions of dollars made by universities, coaches and administrators, which shows the discrepancy and gap that exists when 80 percent of big-time college athletes live below the poverty line [while enrolled]. Academically, many schools are motivated to keep athletes eligible rather than for them to receive a real education and degree.
Many athletes that come from impoverished backgrounds with minimal academic resources have no soft step into college or remedial classes to prepare them to be college students. But their academic shortcomings are often the excuse a school uses to get rid of an athlete that doesn’t pan out athletically.
Medically, the NCAA is far behind professional sports. In recent years, we have seen the National Football League provide protections for its athletes, like [hiring] independent medical staff and minimizing contact practices. This is because the NFL players have a union and a voice to fight for these rights. While high schools and Pop Warner leagues have followed in the footsteps of the NFL, at the college level it’s still up to a university’s coach how many times that school’s players bash their heads in every week.
Q: Do you think this is a system that is broken beyond repair, or are there some things that can be done to fix it?
A: There are many ways to change the system. There is the unionization effort that we saw at Northwestern, which would be on a school-by-school basis. Litigation is another factor, as we’ve seen with the recent O’Bannon lawsuit [over athletes’ name and likeness rights], concussion lawsuits and antitrust lawsuits. Legislation could provide changes at the state or federal level if the government tries to step in and take the reins at some point.
But I believe competition is the fastest way to positive changes in the flawed system. When schools start competing for athletes with rights and protections, other schools will be forced to follow suit. There are very simple solutions to empower and protect college athletes, and we offer many of them in the film.
I believe that there are many values that come with being a college athlete and that college sports is something worth saving. Like many athletes in the film, I love my school. And this film is really made out of love. When you really love something, you push it to be better. I hope this film will educate fans, players and families so that we can make college sports better. And I believe that change will ultimately start with the players.
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