Since the Olympics freed its athletes from the serfdom of amateurism, the only place on the face of the earth where sports are still big-time, big-money, but where the athletes are forced to play without pay is right here at home, in American college football and basketball.
Everywhere else, if there's real money involved, the athletes get their fair share — just like the coaches and promoters and television networks and the guys who sell peanuts and popcorn.
But in the United States, not only are our young football and basketball players forced to play without pay, but the NCAA cartel is also in cahoots with the pro leagues, so that a star athlete has to donate his time to some college for at least a year. This is not only a bonanza for the lucky college but also for the NBA or the NFL — because the pros profit from the publicity the star earned, when he had to play for free while his coach pocketed millions.
Football players don't really have any choice but to go to college and fatten themselves up for the NFL, but a trickle of independent-minded young basketball players are beginning to challenge the system. Of course, they have to leave the idealistic, capitalistic United States for socialistic old Europe to make an honest living, but a couple have already dared to be pioneers.
Last year, a high-school graduate named Brandon Jennings decided to skip mandatory college ball and make a couple million dollars playing in Rome. He's struggled in the Italian pros, but that's really beside the point. What mattered is that he had the guts to take a chance, and that display of character has even enhanced his NBA standing. He's slated to be drafted around six or seven.
Now, a bright high-school junior in San Diego named Jeremy Tyler is planning to take the same great-circle route. And he's willing to work abroad for the full two years before the NBA will allow him to make a living playing basketball in America.
Naturally, some coaches and NCAA sycophants are bewailing this turn of events — but that's to be expected. It's just like it was in the pros when players first brought in agents or fought for free agency. The guys in charge always want to subjugate athletes, maintain their own sweet advantage.
The case of American college football and basketball is all the more egregious now because coerced amateurism has everywhere else been discredited. The two high-profit American team sports are the only rotten boroughs left, and we can root only for the young players brave enough to challenge an antiquated system.
Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.