Meet Tom al-Betar.
A few years ago, Tom was selling University of Alabama football jerseys -- signed by the players -- in his menswear store in a Tuscaloosa mall. The NCAA did not like this. It could not stop Tom from conducting a perfectly legal business, but it could threaten Alabama with sanctions if it did not formally “disassociate” itself from Tom. (Imagine the NFL equivalent: Sir, if you don’t stop selling that unlicensed merchandise, your beloved Vikings will lose a draft pick!)
Thus did Tom receive a “disassociation letter” from the university, instructing him to stop obtaining apparel and autographs from its “student-athletes.”
It turns out that Tom has a new business venture with a new website. Guess what you can find there? Signed jerseys from Crimson Tide stars AJ McCarron, TJ Yeldon, Amari Cooper and others.
So, is Tom a rogue booster or a plain old-fashioned entrepreneur? Is there a difference?
If Tom isn’t already giving players a cut, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to. Of course, the players wouldn’t be allowed to accept payment because of rules that exist -- in the NCAA’s world -- to protect athletes from exploitation. Let’s turn to our NCAA bible, specifically its articulation of the principle of amateurism:
"Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises."
So, let’s get this straight: By paying Alabama’s student-athletes for the enhanced value their signatures provide to jerseys, Tom would actually be exploiting them.
What if the players simply love Tom, and want to give him the signed gear for free? Technically, this, too, is against NCAA rules.
What is acceptable in the NCAA's Pyongyang-inspired marketplace, where happy workers labor for the glory of the state? Student-athletes are permitted to sign merchandise, without pay, for the school to sell and profit from. If the NCAA can’t prevent student-athletes from sharing in profits from merchandise -- such as video games -- they’d prefer to see the product destroyed. Which reminds me of a quote from a different bible: “You shall have no other gods before me. . . .for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.”
The NCAA is currently wrapping up its annual convention in San Diego. It was a well-attended event, preceded by a lot of talk of “transformative” change. What it produced instead was a 14-page document that tinkered at the margins of this ethically bankrupt system. At one point, a school administrator asked if student-athletes -- you know, the people who make Crimson Tide jerseys commercially desirable -- would have a voice in the future of college sports, an opportunity to stand up for their financial rights, perhaps? The answer from Division 1 chairman (and Wake Forest President) Nathan Hatch wasn’t exactly encouraging: “That's not something we've wrestled with.”
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)