Movie Review - The Business of Amateurs (Portland Film Festival)

In the news, there have been numerous reports on concussions in sports, particularly football. It's gotten to the point that a mainstream, motion picture starring Will Smith is coming out on Christmas. As usual, prior to a Hollywood film on a very, news-worthy topic, there's a documentary about that same topic floating out in the world. Three other Hollywood films coming out this fall, including Black Mass, Steve Jobs and The Walk all had documentaries precede them. The key difference between this documentary on concussions and the Will Smith movie is that the Will Smith movie focuses on the NFL, whereas this documentary focuses on collegiate sports, most directly football, as well as breaking down other problems with the NCAA.

Bobby DeMars was a college football player who signed to USC, the University of Southern California in 1997. He had fun. He played hard and has a lot of great memories, but now, years later, he realizes that the cost of medical care and the long-term effects on his body and head are extreme and severe, and might not have been worth it. Therefore, he decides to be the Michael Moore of college football and expose the unfairness, the injustice and the outright harm perpetrated by the NCAA.

DeMars produces and directs this movie, which includes a bit of autobiographical material, but it mostly involves surrogates whom DeMars profiles. These surrogates are very much like DeMars himself. They've played sports in college, and as a result of their injuries have suffered. Some rose up and did something to fight back or better the situation, while others were totally destroyed.

The first surrogate that DeMars features is Scott Ross, a USC football player from 1987 to 1990. He's a prime example of how the game can totally destroy a person. Yet, an outsider can look at Ross and proclaim that he and all players like him know that football is a violent sport, so whatever consequences come is all on them and them alone.

DeMars delves into the issue of concussions. He interviews the president and the neurologist at the Sports Legacy Institute. He also interviews the neuropathologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts. All of which are important, but unless the sport is eliminated or fundamentally changed, concussions will always be an occurrence or concern.

It's definitely an avenue that needed to be explored, especially since it's something that personally effects DeMars. However, other than concussions, the issue that's probably the most important, which DeMars certainly puts front and center, is the issue of money. I don't want to be overly provocative because DeMars doesn't use this language, but, based on what's seen here in DeMars' movie, what the NCAA is doing is tantamount to slavery.

Yes, slavery might be too harsh. Indentured servitude might be too harsh, but that's essentially what's happening. College athletes, mainly young men, mainly African-American, are being worked like crazy, often to their physical detriment, without being payed what they should or really anything at all. In the example of Kyle Hardrick, a basketball player for the University of Oklahoma, he was basically held hostage.

Yes, slavery might be too harsh, but, at best, what the NCAA is doing is outright exploitation. Colleges and universities generate millions of dollars on the backs of student athletes through selling TV rights, ticket sales at stadiums and donations from alumni and others. The athletes of course never see a penny of those millions.

The athletes get scholarships, but, as many testify, scholarships aren't enough to cover tuition, housing, books and food. All of that wouldn't be so bad, except the NCAA has all these rules meant to prevent athletes from doing anything that could earn them extra cash. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit and the wrestler Joel Bauman controversy are prime examples.

But, what's most egregious is the sports-first environment at a lot of schools where sports are prioritized over education. UC Berkeley and UNC at Chapel Hill are put into the cross-hairs in this movie and revealed to do whatever they can to work the athletes' bodies more than their minds in order to maximize game wins.

The proof is in the low graduation rates and the system of cheating that's exposed at Chapel Hill called the Paper Class system. It passes athletes who are failing without actually providing them the knowledge.

This is not to condemn the athletes, or to imply that they don't care about their education. DeMars doesn't condemn the athletes mainly because he is one. He simply argues that many student-athletes are dropped into a machine that doesn't provide them much wiggle room. Any attempt for them to wiggle is immediately slapped down. The no-vote for player unionization at Northwestern University is that example.

The only criticism is the lack of cultural context that DeMars has in his film. He rightfully indicts the NCAA as he should, but there is no indictment of the people at large who watch these sports, pays for the stadium tickets or donates as alumni. If DeMars has proven anything, he's proven these colleges and universities are profit-driven monsters.

DeMars talks to politicians like Congressman Tony Cardenas about legislation to rectify the situation, but, in reality, it's not the NCAA that puts sports-first over all else, including education. It's Americans in general. It's evident in their viewing habits, and I suppose it's easier to point fingers at something like the NCAA rather than the entire country. Yet, it doesn't take away that DeMars' take-down of the NCAA is very thorough and well-done.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Reviewed for Portland Film Festival.
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