Brian Murphy: Amateurs' hour — the athletes strike back

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comFebruary 23, 2014 

Girls from around the state of Idaho convened in the Treasure Valley this weekend to chase a basketball state championship.

Women from the around the world, some as young as the very girls on local basketball courts, convened in Sochi, Russia the past two weeks to chase an Olympic gold medal.

Skyview senior point guard Bailey Pasta is pretty clearly an amateur athlete. She's playing for her mom and being paid in floor burns.

American skier Mikaela Shiffrin, at 18 the youngest gold medalist in Olympic slalom history, is very clearly not. Shiffrin has been on the World Cup circuit for three years.

Is the only difference between Pasta and Shiffrin - both Americans born at roughly the same time - the fact that someone is willing to pay Shiffrin for her athletic talents through prize money and endorsements and not yet ready to do it for Pasta?

Is someone else's willingness to pay what distinguishes an amateur from a professional?

And, if so, where does that leave the NCAA?

On trial.

A federal judge ruled last week that former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's class-action lawsuit can proceed to a jury trial, set to begin June 9. The lawsuit asks that the NCAA's restraints keeping athletes from profitting off their name, image and likeness be struck down - a blow that could forever change the face of college athletics.

The NCAA, as one part of its vast defense, has played the "amateur" card.

"I don't think amateurism is going to be a useful word here," U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said in the courtroom, according to Sports Illustrated.

Should Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston be able to sell his autograph or hawk Nikes on television? Surely, someone is willing to pay him to do so, just as they're willing to pay Shiffrin or a young tennis star.

In a separate matter last week, Northwestern football players went before a National Labor Relations Board to argue they are employees of the university and, as such, should be allowed to form a union to bargain for rights.

In a business that pays some of its coaches more than $5 million per year and builds increasingly luxurious facilities, it's no surprise players - the ones with limited earning years and with their numbers on the back of the jerseys that fans wear all around the stadium - want more control.

And if Northwestern's football players are employees, doesn't that automatically make them professionals?

Life on the fuzzy line between amateur and professional is very complicated.

Just ask Ben Wetzler.

The NCAA has a rule against drafted baseball players using an agent to negotiate a potential contract with the Major League organization that selected them.

Though the rule is largely ignored, Wetzler - a left-handed pitcher at Oregon State who was a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, but opted to return to school for his senior season - has been suspended until March 2 for violating this rule after the Phillies apparently turned him in to the NCAA for using an agent during negotiations.

So the NCAA would prefer its players - the ones the organization is supposed to protect - negotiate with professionals in a billion-dollar industry without proper representation or put their NCAA eligibility at risk.

Shiffrin has representatives negotiating contracts on her behalf. So does just about everyone else in America who does business.

But Wetzler can't, despite his inherent disadvantage in dealing with the Phillies, or he must miss the beginning of his senior season.

Because he is an amateur, whatever that means.

To borrow from the Judge Wilken, I'm not sure amateurism is going to be a useful word much longer.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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