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Amateurism: How to Fix the Fallacy

For years, the concept of amateurism in college athletics has been somewhat of a paradox, primarily because of the staggering dollar amounts involved. On Thursday, the amateurism fallacy extended to high school athletics, at least in California, when Big Baller Brand (BBB) announced the debut of its Melo Ball 1 basketball sneaker (the MB1), named after LaMelo Ball, a 16 year-old who plays basketball for Chino Hills High School in California. LaMelo is the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers draftee Lonzo Ball and son of the outspoken founder of BBB, LaVar Ball. 

Since LaMelo has already committed to play at UCLA, the immediate focus was on whether having his own signature shoe would impair his college eligibility.

NCAA amateurism regulations prohibit college athletes from receiving compensation for use of their name, image or likeness. Since revenue derived from these sources floods the coffers of the NCAA and its member schools, the restrictions in the name of amateurism have sparked extensive debate. The matter eventually wound up in court when former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA, challenging the amateurism restrictions on antitrust grounds. Although the US District Court ruled that the NCAA's amateurism restrictions violated the Sherman Antritrust Act, it was somewhat of a pyrrhic victory because the court rejected the payment of licensing revenue to college players and, after the NCAA appealed to the Ninth Circuit, the establishment of a trust to compensate players after graduation was also shot down.

Not surprisingly, O'Bannon made his viewpoint clear after the LaMelo Ball sneaker announcement.

The NCAA amateurism restrictions continue to lead to results that border on the absurd. Just last month, UCF kicker Donald De La Haye chose to give up his scholarship after the NCAA presented him with the dilemma of choosing between amateur eligibility and YouTube revenue. 

What makes the LaMelo Ball situation so unique is that he is still in high school, entering his junior year at Chino Hills. Will the sneaker deal affect his high school eligibility? Surprisingly, it will not so long as his school and team are not involved.  

According to TMZ Sports, California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Assistant Commissioner Thom Simmons concluded "as long as he's not representing his school in any way (wearing school uniforms, display of mascot, image of schools, etc.) in this venture he would not be in violation." 

The rule in question, clause (4) of CIF Bylaw 212 C (Amateur Status), provides, in pertinent part:

A student shall become ineligible for CIF competition in the respective sport for the following violations related to CIF competition:

 (4) Lending his/her name and team affiliation for purposes of commercial endorsement. . . This provision is not intended to restrict the right of any student to participate in a commercial endorsement provided there is no school team or school affiliation.

Putting aside the interesting question of whether LaMelo or his teammates will be permitted to wear his shoe during high school play (if that happens, there would seem to be a school or team affiliation), the sneaker deal, by itself, does not run afoul of the CIF amateurism regulation. This seems to be the case even if LaMelo personally profits from it.

To be fair, it is not clear whether LaMelo will personally profit from the MB-1s, as an owner of BBB or otherwise. Some may see this as a distinction without a difference, given that BBB is a family business and LaMelo is shown driving a Lamborghini in the MB-1 launch video. 

The MB-1 announcement must be somewhat infuriating for Isaiah Washington, the former St. Raymond standout, reigning Mr. New York Basketball and Minnesota freshman.  As the founder of the jellyfam movement, Washington has attracted a myriad of followers on social media who frequently garnish their posts with a grape vine emoji. Two weeks ago, Nike caused a stir by launching its "PG1" basketball sneakers, which sport a grape vine with basketballs on the left shoe strap. Some criticized Nike for profiting off Washington's creation, pointing out that he was defenseless with the amateurism encumbrance and that Nike was taking advantage.

In New York, although the specific regulations vary among the PSAL, NYSPHSAA, NYSAISAA and CHSAA, all of the amateurism restrictions generally prohibit capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving monetary value, regardless of whether there is school or team affiliation. 

Since LaMelo Ball is an unusual case, the disparity between the New York rule and the California rule may seem trivial now, but the explosion of social media suggests that amatuerism restrictions in high school will soon be scrutinized just like the NCAA regulations.

In July, the New York Times ran a story about the proliferation of companies who create and post mixtapes of high school basketball players (some in junior high) who are believed to be professional prospects. The article quotes Scottie Lewis, a nationally ranked prospect from Ranney School in New Jersey, on the topic:

It took me awhile to get used to people knowing who I am and the videos just popping up. I think its good for me. Its good for my brand. Its good for my name.   

The irony here is that, because of NJSIAA regulations, Lewis is not allowed to profit from his brand, at least insofar as it is based on his basketball skills, so he cannot share in any mixtape revenue. In a sense, the argument for allowing high school student-athletes to profit from their athletic fame is very similar to the argument being made on the NCAA level. Namely, if others can profit from the student-athletes' name, image and likeness, why shouldn't the student-athletes? While there is an obvious difference in the dollar amounts involved, ignoring the economic value of the athletic fame of high school athletes is arguably becoming naive. As a result, LaMelo Ball could be blazing a trail for student-athletes who have achieved athletic fame while still in high school.  

All things considered, the notion of amateurism for student-athletes has become somewhat of a morass. At the college level, student-athletes generate huge amounts of revenue but are denied the opportunity to profit from their own name, image or likeness. This anomaly is catching on at the high school level due to the relentless growth of social media.

So what's the answer?

One potential solution would be to allow student-athletes (in both college and high school) to monetize their athletic fame so long as their financial interests are held in a trust until cessation of interscholastic competition (with common sense exceptions for bona fide hardships). 

The trust solution to preserve amateur status is not new. As mentioned above, the concept was raised by Ed O'Bannon in his lawsuit against the NCAA. Several legal commentators have also weighed in on the idea. In Putting Our Trust in the NCAA: How Creating Trusts For Student-Athletes Can Save The NCAA From Itself, Jonathan Strom provides a detailed examination of the concept and how it could be implemented in a logical way. 

The proposal for the creation of trusts for student-athletes allows the NCAA to address the issue of compensation and still maintain its core objectives. . . . Through the trust, student-athletes would have some financial security upon graduation.      

In Student-Athletes vs. NCAA: Preserving Amateurism In College SportsAudrey C. Sheetz points out that the International Olympics Committee has aleady implemented a successful trust system to address compensation while preserving amateurism.

Ultimately, the most functional trust for both the NCAA and its member schools is one that mirrors that of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), the governing organization for the Olympics and all of its member institutions. [U]nder the IOC, revenue from athletes' endorsements is held in a trust that is accessible to them both during and after competition. During competition, only necessary expenses, such as food and incidentals related to competition, may be paid from the trust; after a competition season, however, athletes may personally withdraw the remaining funds.  

Although these proposals are specifically aimed at college athletics, the mechanism could be implemented at the high school level as well. 

Ideally, the NCAA and the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) would establish a joint task force to explore the issue and come up with a sensible proposal to modernize and bring uniformity to the concept of amateurism. Absent that, the NCAA or any state athletic association could be a trendsetter in this area.

Sure, there are lots of details that would need to be worked through (trustee qualifications, student-athlete control/oversight, trust formation expenses and yes, more regulation), but this is still worth exploring. After all, this is the United States, the land of opportunity. Why shouldn't LaMelo Ball be able to profit from the MB-1s? Why shouldn't Donald De La Haye be able to profit from his YouTube channel? Why shouldn't Isaiah Washington be able to have his own jellyfam basketball sneaker? Why shouldn't Scottie Lewis be able to profit from his own brand? Concerned about amateurism, just lock the profits up in a trust until they turn pro or otherwise cease interscholastic competition.       

Speaking of the United States, consider that President Trump was able to place his business interests in a trust to purportedly address conflicts of interest while running the country. Shouldn't student-athletes be able to do the same to preserve amateur status?

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