The Business of Amateurs: A True Labor of Love

This past Saturday, I was given the chance to see The Business of Amateurs at the Calabasas Film Festival. The film, created by former USC football defensive end Bob DeMars, is an examination of the issues surrounding collegiate athletics today. Focusing on civil rights, this documentary challenges the NCAA’s current role in the marketing and selling of their cheapest commodity: amateurs.

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is one of the most polarizing organizations in the world of sports. Outside of FIFA, there is perhaps no other governing body of sport accused of as much, as frequently, and as often as the NCAA.

In fact, the word cartel is commonly applied to both, and with good reason. Whether it’s the way the organization applies special rules to athletes that don’t apply to any other student or the way they absorb their image and likeness rights like Shang-Tsung performing a fatality, the NCAA have seemingly gone out of their way to create the greatest group of supervillains ever assembled since the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants was formed by Magneto.

Beginning with Death to the BCS and the Arizona Republic’s incredible investigative work on Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker and his abuses of the non-profit system, the NCAA and their overreaching authority have been under constant fire. Perhaps even before then questions were asked, but public perception of the BCS and the entities running it began to tilt around the time these reports would surface.

Slowly but surely, more and more outlets began to investigate the organizations that were supposed to be acting as a watchdog and the things they found, though a surprise to nobody paying attention to the behind-the-scenes prior to their publication, began to initiate a growing outcry for change.

DeMars had a brain to go with his skills on the field and it would end up being repeated blows to this brain that would change the trajectory of his life forever.

Enter former USC defensive end Bobby DeMars, a player who did not receive his first start until his 5th year at USC under Pete Carroll. When it came to selecting a university in the first place, USC’s film school ultimately was the deciding factor for DeMars, who had letters from the Harvard’s and Stanford’s of the world. DeMars eventually received the John Wayne award, given to the player with the highest aspirations off the field. 

In other words, DeMars had a brain to go with his skills on the field and it would end up being repeated blows to this brain that would change the trajectory of his life forever.

Scott Ross was a former linebacker who played at USC from 1987-1990. During that time, Ross played in three different Rose Bowls, picked up All-American status, was named USC’s most valuable player, most inspirational player, defensive player of the year, and achieved All Pac-10 first team honors three times.

He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but he would also receive repeated blows to the head during his time in the sport, which would eventually culminate in Ross’ death, brought on by a heart attack. Ask anyone close to Ross during this time, including DeMars, and they will tell you that this death was brought on by CTE and repeated head trauma, the heart attack was just the official cause listed.

More than that, Ross’ death was brought on by a much larger problem facing collegiate football: the welfare, physically and mentally, of those who put their bodies on the line in the name of the school colors.

Where Ross’ story left off, DeMars’ story picks up. His story is now about the future of what this sport will become unless significant changes are made to the ways in which we protect our athletes.

The Business of Amateurs is a powerfully narrated and wonderfully weaved narrative of the problems facing collegiate athletics, humanized in an understandable way and served in easy-to-digest portions.

Whether it’s sitting with DeMars as he discovers that he is suffering from brain trauma of his own or listening to Amy Perryman, wife of recently-deceased Boston College linebacker Ron Perryman, describe the deterioration and death of her best friend with more dignity and class than anyone could ever ask, DeMars does so much more than raise awareness of the issues, he humanizes them in brutally honest ways.

Sep 12, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun (89) walks off with an injury during the fourth quarter against the Oregon Ducks at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans beat the Ducks 31-28. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a film for the faint of heart. The aim is not to inundate you with sob story after sob story, but it is intended to provide a very lifelike glimpse into the realities of being a student-athlete as they go beyond the field of play and into quality of life.

It’s one thing to read about these stories in your local paper or on Outside the Lines, it’s an entirely different thing to sit through a diagnosis of brain deterioration and an actual phone call to research facility as DeMars donates his brain to a research facility specifically looking at head trauma in football players.

It’s very real, it’s very unnerving, and it’s absolutely meant to be each of those things.

There’s something very sobering about realizing DeMars is no more than a couple years older than I am and having to have conversations with his wife about donating his brain and handling degenerative conditions.

Then you’re hit with the realization that Pop Warner and the NFL have regulations on the amount of contact drills in which players can participate, but college has no such limits on these drills, despite players undergoing an estimated 900-1,500 blows to the head, per season.

The average college scholarship is worth 23k and covers zero medical expenses for anyone once they leave the school, regardless of whether or not they were injured at the school. It hardly seems like a fair trade when you’re watching actual video interviews of Scott Ross in the months leading up to his death.

But then you hear the love of collegiate athletics expressed by every athlete interviewed in this film, you realize that this film isn’t a gritty and depressing look into what’s wrong with collegiate athletics — though it definitely is that at times — it is so much more; it is a celebration of collegiate athletics’ unique place in our American tradition.

Whether it’s noted ESPN journalist Ramona Shelburne talking about her love of Stanford and her time at Stanford or listening to Amy Perryman talk about Boston College as her family, the central theme of everything DeMars does is a love of athletes and collegiate athletics.

Noted collegiate athletic researcher and former Cal Bear national champion rower Kirsten Hextrum drove this point home talking about loving something and wanting to see it improve.

Those who would paint reformists as individuals trying to ruin the sport are missing the very soul of their argument. This isn’t about destroying something, this is about preserving something and improving something for a future generation of athletes.

Nov 28, 2014; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Viliami Laiu Moeakiola (28) is helped to the locker room by trainers after suffering an injury against the Arizona Wildcats during the 88th annual territorial cup at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t about pay-for-play, this is about quality of life and wanting to be able to love that life long after you’ve left the hallowed halls of championships.

The Business of Amateurs is also clever in what it does.

Whether intentional or not, DeMars has some cleverly placed images at opportune times during narration. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of Texas A&M taking the field as DeMars narrated the history of schools having no qualms about enforcing their ownership of brands and likeness rights. Even if they are purely coincidental, their addition were points of amusement scattered throughout and always welcome.

Brilliantly animated and wonderfully scored by former student-athletes Steven Christian (Oregon State – football) and Christian Staehely (Princeton – baseball), respectively, the film does a fine job of recognizing when things have gotten a bit heavy. Like any documentary on controversial topics, there are points where you simply need a mental break and a chance to calm your allergies.

Overall, however, this film is extremely positive even in its darkest hours. Less a lengthy condemnation of everything wrong with college sports, the film offers real solutions to the problems facing the NCAA. DeMars did not simply show up with a story, a camera, and no productive suggestions of his own.

The film engages in worthwhile discussions of how to monitor collisions in the sport much like teams monitor pitch counts in baseball. These solutions are grounded in technology and do not rely upon Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks insisting that they will cure concussions.

With the understanding that mental health is at the core of this film’s heart, DeMars honors the memory of Ross by ensuring that this film drives discussion of mental health and brain trauma, it does not distract from it. Above all other things, this aspect of the film is its most important and its most inspiring.

The Business of Amateurs isn’t just a film that fans of USC need to watch, it’s a film that should be seen by anyone who consider themselves a lifelong fan of college sports, any sport.

The film is a wonderful representation of everything DeMars and other have given to collegiate athletics, on and off the field of play. It is a film that touches, inspires, saddens, educates, and most importantly, drives discussion about change and reform.

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