Far Afield: Eligible receivers

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Myles Brand had to spell out the finer points of amateurism for me, all but sighing, “Do I have to spell it out for you?” During a 2006 South Bend Tribune interview, we got to talking about Tom Zbikowski ’07 and his NCAA-approved professional boxing debut that summer. The fight did not threaten Zbikowski’s college-football eligibility. Brand tried, patiently, to help me understand why.

Zbikowski was an accomplished amateur boxer, but still: he didn’t get a featured bout at Madison Square Garden and $25,000 based on his Chicago Golden Gloves record. It made no sense to me that he could wear gloves painted football-helmet gold and trunks embroidered with a shamrock and his Irish jersey No. 9 without causing an NCAA scene. Not when, that same summer, he appeared as a guest on a South Bend talk show and recorded an impromptu five-second plug — for free — only to sweat his eligibility over an “implied endorsement.”

The late Brand was the NCAA president at the time, not to mention a philosophy Ph.D., so I felt out of my depth disputing his logic, no matter how tortured it sounded. It went like this: “He made money from his boxing, surely, and that’s perfectly legitimate, but he did not use his notoriety at Notre Dame as a football player to have endorsements, or he didn’t use his name as a football player as a way of doing that other job.”

Promoter Bob Arum used Zbikowski’s notoriety for him. He even dressed up the Notre Dame safety’s opponent in Ohio State scarlet (the Irish had lost to the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl months earlier). That opponent, Robert Bell, teased Zbikowski about being another “Rudy,” stirring whatever animosity the fighters could muster. It was, in effect, a college football game.

Arum’s motivation, Brand explained, was not Zbikowski’s concern: “He can’t prevent what others think of him,” as long as he did not pursue financial gain based on his Notre Dame football affiliation. “The point,” Brand said, “is that they don’t use their standing in the sport as a way to earn money.”

Four years later, I’ve never gotten my head around that distinction — or my confusion about which money counts in the NCAA’s amateur calculations. An athletic scholarship (which could be worth more to, say, a Notre Dame women’s basketball player than a WNBA salary) obviously does not count as money. Nor does a pro bonus like Zbikowski received in plain exchange for his Irish football fame. Yet endorsements, even the unpaid, implied variety? That’s money. A penny from an agent? Dirty money.

These issues came to mind recently when my friend, Pulitzer Prize-winner George Dohrmann, ’95, unleashed more dogged reporting from the dark heart of college sports. “Confessions of an Agent” in the October 18 Sports Illustrated gave Josh Luchs the floor to level panoramic allegations about his illicit inducements to college athletes.

Beyond the brazen disregard for the rules laid bare — Luchs accused more than 30 players of accepting money or benefits from him, and eight admitted to it — the striking thing was how little it took. Often it amounted to a few hundred to $1,500 a month, an exploitive tactic to keep the kids just needy enough. That adds up, but it hardly seems worth the rulebook ink to prohibit.

No amount seems worth the NCAA president performing philosophical contortions to achieve such nuanced hair-splitting. What’s the difference between Arum paying Zbikowski $25,000 for 49 seconds of work and weeks of name recognition, and some kid signing with a reputable agent (as opposed to the crooked strivers like Luchs, who operate outside the rules)? All that cash only gets grimy when it’s passed under the table.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.