The curious case of arbitrary ‘amateurism’: As local teens like Red Gerard monetize success, NCAA counterparts remain left out

Earlier this week in San Antonio — at what amounts to the NCAA’s annual state of the union address before the men’s basketball Final Four — NCAA president Mark Emmert made it perfectly clear: nothing’s changing.

“Amateurism” is here to stay!

Even if the FBI in the last year has shed light on the multi-million dollar basketball black market that has turned this weekend’s finale of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — an event that earned Emmert and the NCAA more than a billion dollars last year, 82 percent of its annual revenue — into a laughingstock.

Monday night’s national championship game between Michigan and Villanova, to many Americans, won’t be “One Shining Moment.” Rather, it’ll be one shining example of what happens when you refuse to allow a business’s most important workers — in this case, the college basketball players who will be competing on the Alamodome court — from using their creativity, ambition and entrepreneurial skills to monetize their individual work and worth. At all.

Not even for one single, solitary penny.

To many, it’ll be Exhibit 1A of a gluttonous, hoggish system that hides behind amateurism to overstep its bounds and prevent the people who make the NCAA the lion’s share of its money from making the most of themselves monetarily.

Making the most of themselves monetarily…

Like the world’s best freestyle skiers and snowboarders do every winter here in Summit County.

Making the most of themselves monetarily…

Like, say, Silverthorne Olympic gold medalist and 17-year-old Red Gerard did when he, at the age of 16, inked a deal with Mountain Dew.

Gerard is now two years younger than the 19-year-old who was arguably college basketball’s biggest star this season: Duke student — well, for one more semester, at least, before he bolts for the greener pastures of the NBA — Marvin Bagley III.

In his lifetime, it would be an absolute shock if Bagley didn’t earn more than Gerard. Hundreds of millions of dollars are not out of the question for as basketball star like Bagley.

Snowboarders like Gerard, in comparison? Their career lifespan is certainly fleeting. The vast majority of professional snowboarders can’t support themselves for an extended period of time by solely snowboarding.

Stories like that of Gerard are few and far between. And, beyond that, there is the reality that many NBA players come from less-fortunate backgrounds than many professional snowboarders.

But, that’s not the point. The point is why is it OK for a teen athlete like Gerard to make money as early as 16 years old, while Bagley is forced to wait until he’s a year out of high school, only after making thousands — if not millions — for the NCAA?

For further context, let’s take the month of February 2018 as a case study comparing what it’s like to be one of the world’s best teen snowboarders versus what it’s like to be one of the world’s best teen basketball players, and how — in reality, no matter what the NCAA says — each athlete goes about being compensated (or not compensated) for their elite skills.

What it’s like to be an elite teen snowboarder in 2018

In February, the 17-year-old snowboarder Gerard toured the U.S. in the wake of his gold medal Olympic win.

He appeared on TV shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live. And after the Olympics? He signed autographs for throngs on fans in Vail at the same snowboard store that sponsors him, Burton.

The reason? To make the most of his personal brand and strike while the iron was hot, deriving compensation for his Olympic victory and sudden stardom.

What it’s like to be an elite teen basketball player in 2018

Bagley is a 6-foot-11 basketball phenom who, for the past five years, has been regarded by some basketball experts as maybe the best teen-aged American player since LeBron James.

But in February, unlike James at 19-years-old, Bagley wasn’t being compensated for playing for an NBA team. Rather, he was playing for the NCAA’s Duke University in conference games up and down the Atlantic Coast. On most afternoons and evenings, he dominated his individual competition. The common refrain was that Bagley looked like a man amongst boys at the NCAA level.

He was that good.

Despite that dominance, Bagley didn’t receive any compensation.

And that’s because of two things:

-The NBA’s “one-and-done rule,” which prevents American high schoolers from playing for an NBA team until a year after their high school graduation. It was instituted in time for the 2006 NBA Draft.

-And the NCAA’s stance on amateurism, which precludes college-aged athletes like Bagley from inking sponsorship deals or singing with an agent, like Gerard.

Essentially, the NBA — but more so the NCAA — have been complicit in preventing basketball players like Bagley from deriving any income from outside entities that would, likely, be more than willing to compensate them.

Now, even if you believe that the NCAA isn’t being selfishly greedy by sticking with their rules on amateurism — rules the Olympics did away with decades ago, in turn helping future athletes like Gerard — here’s the issue: Guys who are as good as Bagley are already making thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions thanks to their basketball skills.

Quite simply, someone with Marvin Bagley’s basketball skills is worth too much — and, in reality, we are talking tens of millions of dollars — to too many people: Agents. Business advisors. Handlers. Youth coaches. Sneaker companies. Sponsors.

And, most importantly, to himself and his family.

And what happens when a regulatory entity — in this case the NCAA — prevents someone or something — in this case Bagley — from collecting a monetary value entities are willing to compensate them for?

A black market arises. And, boy, is there one hell of a black market puppetering which players go where and who they do business with behind the back of the NCAA’s “amateur” basketball association.

All you have to do is look to the swoosh, stripes or “UA” on your sneakers.

And that’s because within the past 12 months, the FBI has exposed the NCAA’s oligarchy of an athletic nonprofit for being not only incompetent in its efforts to hold its member institutions accountable to its own rules, but for being downright aloof.

For anyone out there who is unaware of the NCAA’s so-called “corruption” scandal over the past year, here’s a quick Spark Notes.

It’s a case of “Goodfellas” and basketball colliding, as the FBI only stumbled across the corruption in NCAA basketball after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigated a Pittsburgh-based financial planner named Marty Blazer.

The SEC charged Blazer with wire fraud and accused him of embezzling more than $2 million from several professional athletes to invest in movie projects and finance Ponzi schemes.

But as part of a plea agreement with the state of New York’s Southern District U.S. Attorney’s office, Blazer agreed to become an FBI informant in exchange for his guilty plea to reduced charges.

Essentially, much like Henry Hill in the mob movie “Goodfellas,” Blazer agreed to rat on others in order to help himself.

As an informant, the white-collar criminal Blazer became a cooperating witness for the FBI, providing vital information that sparked the FBI’s investigation into the relationship between college basketball coaches, financial advisers, sports agents, marketing officials and apparel company employees in recruiting elite youth basketball players.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What we’ve come to learn in the past year as the FBI has rolled out its findings is that, right underneath the nose of Emmert and the NCAA, shoe companies, like Nike, and sports agents hoping to represent talented players have, against NCAA rules, compensated youth talent, their family and their handlers. Not only that, but several assistant coaches were charged for colluding to steer certain college athletes to specific professional agents in exchange for kickbacks.

For shoe companies and agents, it’s as simple as this: In talented youth basketball players like Bagley, they are looking for, like most every other business person, a return on investment. So they are willing to, under the table, provide things to, say, 10 players like Bagley, in the hopes at least one or two will make it big and make them money. A lot of money.

In an elite Top 25 high school basketball player like Bagley, there are strong odds that that player will make it to the NBA, and in turn make millions and, in turn, make you thousands. That’s why most every elite NCAA basketball team is sponsored by Nike, Adidas or Under Armour.

They run this business. From the youngest of grassroots leagues all the way up to Lebron James vs. Steph Curry in the NBA Finals.

And that’s why, when Bagley suits up in the NBA next year, he’ll most likely be wearing Nike sneakers — the same company that sponsored not only his Duke team, but the grassroots team his father coached.

Should we expect Bagley and his family to be OK with playing for Duke for no compensation, all while outside entities are throwing not only the promise of millions, but the reality of millions of dollars in their face? Should they be smitten so much by the glitz and glam of March Madness through their childhoods that they want to play for free for a year at a prestigious university such as Duke?

To even entertain that thought is just as silly as it would be to entertain the thought that — if we lived in an alternate college sports world — Gerard would be competing in a March Madness-style NCAA tournament while shredding for the Duke Blue Devils snowboarding squad.

Picture this, voiced by Jim Nantz:

“There goes Red, winning his Elite Eight matchup at the West Regional at Mammoth Mountain to advance to the Final Four of college snowboarding at Breckenridge, executing all those flips and rotations for the pride of Blue Devil snowboarding!”

Yes, it’s silly. The only reason a guy like Bagley is attending Duke for seven months is because he has to. The bottom line is he’s already put in the work to earn millions for his skills. The NCAA’s silly rule is just delaying it.

But it’s not guys like Bagley we should be worried about. He’s made it in and out of his seven months at Duke without a career-ending injury that will rip him of potential future earnings.

It’s guys like Ray Smith at the University of Arizona, one of the schools implicated in the FBI probe, that we should empathize with. As a high school junior, the Las Vegan, Smith, was one of those Top 25 high school players. To many on the grassroots scene, he was a surefire future pro. Best case scenario? He’d be a millionaire in the NBA. Worse case scenario? He’d make hundreds of thousands overseas.

But you know what happened when Ray Smith went to Arizona? He tore his ACL.

Not once, but twice.

His basketball playing career is over.

He never was compensated.

So, Summit County, I ask you: What if we actually lived in that alternate sporting universe, and what happened to Ray Smith happened to Red?

As we watch Monday night’s championship game, now that’s a different kind of “March Madness” we should think about.

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