August 15, 2016 -- “The Business of Amateurs” is the first documentary film I've seen which attempts to cover both the indentured servitude-like treatment of college athletes and the long term health effects of sports-related traumatic brain injuries. It is a powerful film which shows how the National Collegiate Athletic Association has come to exploit, neglect and abuse the very athletes it is supposed to protect.
I first saw some of this material in the powerful sports documentary “Blood Equity” (2009). That film, which came out before the prevalence of football brain injuries was widely known, was mainly about the medical neglect of former players by the National Football League and the NFL Player's Association. There has since been a lot of publicity, and action, concerning this part of the story.
Then, last year, Hollywood finally got into the act with “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a previously undiagnosed degenerative brain disease caused by sports-related repetitive head trauma. Again, this film was mainly about Dr. Omalu and his fight with the NFL. Then there was the excellent PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis.”
“The Business of Amateurs” concentrates mainly on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which is a different focus than those earlier films. This film is also about the abuses of the NCAA. In this regard, it is more along the lines of what journalist Joe Nocera has been writing about in recent years. His new book, “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” co-written with Ben Strauss, covers the exploitation, abuse and neglect of athletes by the NCAA.
This film takes all this a step farther by linking the NCAA to the issue of untreated sports injuries and CTE in particular. Like “Blood Equity,” this is a powerful film that will get your blood boiling as you see the permanent damage done to former football and basketball players and how the NCAA and colleges have successfully avoided responsibility for providing adequate medical treatment for many athletes in college sports programs.
This film is directed by former University of Southern California football player Bob DeMars. DeMars had to quit playing after a serious neck injury suffered while playing for USC in 2001. A lot of it has to do with his own experience as a player and that of a fellow player and friend, Scott Ross (USC football 1987-90).
DeMars had already begun to worry that the long term cost of his football injuries would outweigh the benefits of his college diploma when he heard of the death of former player Junior Seau (who suffered from CTE) in 2012. This raised the disturbing possibility that the long term cost of playing college football might be much higher than DeMars ever imagined it was. He also saw his friend, Scott Ross, following the same downward spiral of other players with CTE: anxiety, depression, aggression, confusion, addiction to drugs like pain medications and alcohol.
DeMars interviews whistle blowers, politicians, economists, former players and their parents about the abuses of the NCAA. He spends considerable time in this documentary with Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, and with Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy foundation.
What is revealed in this film is the fact that the NFL has just started to deal with the problem of CTE and the NCAA is still in a state of denial, even as former players are dying, leaving behind shattered families. At least one college, Boston College, seems to be doing the right thing for the family of former Boston College linebacker Ron Perryman after he died at age 42. Perryman's brain showed signs of CTE which may be linked to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) which Perryman also suffered from. The film also reveals that Lou Gehrig also played college football and had suffered several concussions before contracting ALS.
This documentary also touches on several cases in which NCAA rules were used for the mean-spirited purpose of stopping players from profiting from their sports fame. The legal case of UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, who successfully sued the NCAA for using his likeness without his permission is also mentioned in the documentary.
The interviews with Scott Ross and Amy Perryman (Ron's wife) are disturbing and heartbreaking. What happened to them is tragic. DeMars shows his own fear in the film as well, as he becomes increasingly concerned that he might have CTE. He is seen in the film arranging to have his brain and spinal cord donated for CTE research after his death.
It is bad enough that players like Mike Webster, Ron Perryman and Scott Ross contracted CTE before the risk was known, but there is no excuse now for football practices on all levels from the youngest children to seasoned professionals to be subjected to permanent, irreversible brain damage because of unsafe playing and practice methods.
The film also makes a strong case that college players are not currently student athletes, or amateur athletes. They are university employees, and should be paid accordingly, like college coaches and others in the multi billion dollar industry of the NCAA. College athlete health care needs should be paid for by the NCAA and by the colleges that profit from the players.
This is a film which should be seen by every football player and every athlete thinking of signing an athletic letter of intent to any college, and by every parent and family member of those athletes. The NCAA is getting away with murder, and it needs to be reformed. This film rates a B+. (I reviewed an advance video file of this documentary, which will be available nationally on pay per view and VOD platforms on August 26, 2016).
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