When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, American college basketball was still more or less the amateur sport it now only pretends to be. Twenty-three teams participated in the NCAA tournament that year, which was won by the University of California. Despite having no superstars and just one future pro, the Golden Bears beat a Cincinnati team featuring Oscar Robertson and a West Virginia team featuring Jerry West.
If he'd been made aware of it, Castro probably would have loved the notion of a bunch of anonymous athletes from a beatnik enclave beating two of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Immediately after the Revolution, he began to remake Cuba’s sports infrastructure with something similar in mind: sport as an amateur, egalitarian activity.
Previously, professional spectator sports like baseball and boxing had been big business on the island. Cuban baseball teams played exhibitions against major-league counterparts visiting from the United States. Havana was home to the Sugar Kings, a Triple A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.1 And after the color barrier was broken in the U.S., Cuban stars like Minnie Miñoso began to land on major-league rosters.
Amateur sports, meanwhile, existed mostly as a hobby for Cuba's upper class. The outgoing Batista government did little to make sports accessible, or promote participation on a national level, especially in Olympic sports. Activities like tennis and track and field were practiced by the wealthy, white upper class in exclusive clubs. Poor citizens lacked access to facilities.
All of this changed under Castro, who outlawed professional sports completely in 1962 and turned amateur sports into a point of national pride. Castro’s goal was to transform a complex sporting economy—with owners, promoters, and athletes all working toward their own ends—into a single, comprehensive cog in the ongoing revolution. Imagine if all sports in America were controlled by the NCAA, and the NCAA were a propaganda wing of the government.
“Sport has also become a business, it has also become a commodity, it has also become an object of exploitation,” Castro said in November, 1961. Later, in the same speech, he said that the defenders of the revolution, meaning the military, were also interested in sport. “Because they need healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, and strong defenders of the homeland.”
In the years to come, Cuban athletes would become not only military defenders of the homeland, but also figureheads meant to represent Cuba’s strength and prowess. When Teófilo Stevenson, the iconic three-time Olympic gold-medal winning heavyweight, died in 2012, Castro pronounced on Cuban radio that “no money in the world would have been enough to bribe Stevenson.”
The hypocrisy in Castro’s vision is self-evident. For decades, the Cuban sports ministry has preached a doctrine of socialist equality that supposedly applies to all athletes, from scrubs to superstars. Meanwhile, the government has been willing to exploit its superstars for political gain while preventing them from leveraging their own talents for financial gain. Which is why these days, there are fewer and fewer athletes like Teófilo Stevenson, who stayed in Cuba on principle, and more boxers like Guillermo Rigondeaux, a super bantamweight who won gold medals for Cuba at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and defected to the United States in 2009. Rigondeaux is undefeated so far as a pro, and holds a slew of title belts.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because a very similar drama is playing out on the other side of the embargo. American college athletes—who generate millions of dollars for universities, not to mention for TV networks and merchandisers—are exploited in much the same way Cuba’s revolutionary athletes are. They endure difficult travel and training schedules, but their compensation is limited to free tuition, room and board, and the supposed privilege of being a student athlete.
When NCAA officials talk about this privilege, they make it sound like the task of punting footballs is indeed as honorable as defending one’s homeland. They speak as if being a student athlete is its own reward, much the same way Castro spoke about the amateur stars of Cuba. But sports do not exist in a vacuum, which is why the NCAA claims that student athletes have higher test scores and graduation rates than the student body at large; and that after graduation, student athletes will go on to become exemplary citizens—or, as the commercials say, most “go pro in something other than sports.”
If being a student athlete is its own reward, why sell America on the auxiliary benefits? And with skewed data, no less: The NCAA inflates graduation rates by comparing student athletes, who are by definition full-time students, to a broad student body consisting of both full-time and part-time students. For instance, the NCAA uses a six-year measurement that adjusts for athletes who leave universities “in good academic standing," whereas part-time students are more likely to take longer than six years to graduate. A more comprehensive statistic created by the Collegiate Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina found that between 2006-2012, Division 1 football players graduated at a rate 18 percent lower than their peers; men's basketball players at a rate 20 percent lower; and women's basketball players at 9 percent lower. CSRI-affiliated professors Gerald Gurney and Richard Southall wrote on ESPN, “Simply put, the athletes on whose skill the entire commercial enterprise depends, college football and men's basketball players, are dramatically less likely than other students to obtain a degree.”
So maybe it’s no surprise that the lawsuit that threatens the NCAA’s very foundation—the sacred notion of amateurism—was initiated by an athlete in a revenue sport, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon. The suit, which has evolved since it was initially filed in July 2009, accuses the NCAA of profiting off the likenesses of unpaid athletes—like the 1958-59 Cal Golden Bears—in archival material. It seeks to allow athletes the right to collectively license their names and images for use in future broadcasts, so they can earn a cut of the NCAA's millions of dollars in TV revenue. Last year, the suit was granted partial class-action status. Among the plaintiffs who have joined O'Bannon is Oscar Robertson, the NBA hall-of-famer whose Cincinnati team fell to Cal in the '59 Final Four.
O’Bannon and company are right to demand compensation. For the NCAA, amateurism is no more than a means to a commercial end, the lynchpin that sustains an immoral business model, in which “amateurism” is used as a legal justification for not fairly compensating talent. In a hearing last month, Judge Claire Wilken set a July 16 trial date and warned the NCAA, “I don't think amateurism is going to be a useful word here.”
This is the attitude taken by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who filed an antitrust suit this week against the NCAA that takes an even more direct approach than O'Bannon's: Kessler is seeking to remake the entire structure of revenue-generating college sports in the United States. He told ESPN he wants to "strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate," and for "the market for players to emerge." In other words, he wants players to be paid what they're worth.
Even the Castro regime, which so thoroughly believed in amateurism that it ended all professional sports, is rethinking its approach. For the first time since 1962, baseball players in Cuba’s Serie Nacional are receiving incentive-based salaries and bonuses. They are also now welcome to sign with professional teams outside of Cuba (but still not those in the United States). Meanwhile, the future stars of the NBA are on television this week, making money for everybody but themselves, an injury away from losing everything they've worked so hard for.
Ironically, the Reds had officially changed their name to "Redlegs" for much of the '50s in a short-lived act of patriotic, McCarthy-era rebranding.
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. He has contributed to ESPN the Magazine, Deadspin, Slate, The Daily Beast, and other publications. He is also a founder and editor of The Classical. Reach him @ericnus.