High school basketball star R.J. Hampton spurned the best offers from most prestigious US Colleges and decided to apprentice instead in the Australian National Basketball League. Offers from Kansas, Duke, Memphis, and Kentucky were not enough. Hampton will earn a salary far in excess of the $100,000 that young players make in the Next Stars Program when he suits up for the New Zealand Breakers next season.
Hampton is not the first high profile young athlete to disregard conventional path the professional sports. Carter Stewart, a nineteen year old pitching prospect, decided to sign with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the Japanese Pacific League for a six year contract worth north of $7,000,000. Crucially, the 8th overall pick of the 2018 draft declined to sign with the Atlanta Braves and becomes the first American amateur to sign long term with a Japanese team. Canadians saw this firsthand when the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted star centre Auston Matthews from his Swiss professional team instead of the traditional US College or CHL route taken by elite prospects. This provides an interesting wrinkle in the traditional way athletes move from amateur to professional ranks, but also gives us an hint at what potential athlete activism might look like moving into the future.
The tie that binds Hampton, Stewart, and Matthews together is wanting to get paid while apprenticing to become professional athletes. The traditional relationship between amateurs and professionals in North America relies on straight lines from one to the next. Amateur athletes enter in apprenticeships that offer clubs or sometimes schools the opportunity to cash in on their cheap labour before they make it to the big leagues and cash in big time. These three athletes decided not to wait. The benefits of competition means that these players have alternative options. They can ply their trade, improve their skills, gain notoriety, and increase their marketability all while earning professional level salaries. For prospects like Matthews and Carter, rather than earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, their skills would be served to US colleges where they would receive in kind benefits (scholarships, meal plans, equipment, etc) but not a salary.
Matthews could have chosen to play in the Canadian Hockey League, a semi-pro development league for the best 16-19 year old hockey prospects in North America (with some exemptions for European and 20 year old players). But he would earn only a small stipend and would be severely limited in his ability to take on endorsements. For a prospect like Stewart, he would have to toil in the minor leagues, earning miniscule salaries until he emerged in the big leagues where his contract would still be heavily controlled by MLB entry level deals. When you have the talent to bargain, you should use it and that’s exactly what these players are doing.
If there are competitor leagues who will offer what a player wants, players will jump at the opportunity. This is what contributed to the negative association of professional players when the amateur associations of the 19th century engaged with the professional competitors at the beginning of the 20th century. In my study of the history of ice hockey, the first open professional league poached players from the best elite amateur leagues by offering high salaries, but also the ability to be open and honest about the benefits they received.
The best kept secret about Amateur sports is that they have never truly been Amateur at the elite level. Even the most ardent Amateur Gentlemen offered external inducements to the best players to lure them to play for their clubs. Sometimes this was under the table payments, sometimes it was securing them a high paying job, and sometimes it was both. When open professionalism emerged, it ruffled the sensibilities of the sporting public and players were described as prostitutes willing to sell their bodies to the highest bidder.
You can see similar arguments against these three, no loyalty to the traditional expected avenues to the professionals and that they are after the money. But their amateur routes are not innocent of these traditional “shamateur” practices. For Carter and the NCAA, one need only to look at massive scandal that emerged at over 20 schools in 2017 and resulted in FBI charges against coaches and shoe company representatives. Again, it’s an open secret that the best players receive impermissible benefits, additional payments, and preferential treatment and these vary across amateur contexts. Rather than operating in the dark, these high level prospects want the recognition and the remuneration their skills command on the open market.
When understood in this context, you can view these high level prospects as activists helping to shine a light on the clandestine practices within elite level amateur sports and showing alternative routes to the same end goal. Focusing on the NCAA, in 2010 that organization signed a 10.8 Billion dollar contract with CBS to broadcast March Madness for 14 years. There are over 60 coaches in NCAA basketball who make over $1,000,000 and schools can earn north of $8.5 million dollars for making it all the way to the Final Four. It’s clear that there is big money in NCAA basketball, but do the star players get what they are worth? Not openly.
This leads to the types of scandals that emerged in 2017. I don’t have the answers on how to fix these secret arrangements, but the more high profile prospects that refuse to play this game by signing in alternative professional leagues, the less power these traditional institutions will have over other less talented prospects. In that sense, while they don’t look like the type of activists we are used to seeing, they may prove to be a source of positive change to these “shamateur” practices. Market competition allows for greater choice and more options. It also pushes bad actors to be more transparent in the face of market challenges. Let’s applaud these prospects for opening this conversation.