From the archives: “The Trouble with Amateurism”

This seemed worth the vowels and consonants in 2010. By 2015 or so (post-post-Branch), it felt more mundane. Now, apparently, it merits restating.

December 17, 2010
by John Gasaway

(Reprinted from the College Basketball Prospectus, 2010-11.)

“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.”
NCAA Principle of Amateurism

Amateurs have given us many of the most sublime moments in sports, and I rejoice that they’ll continue to do so even if it turns out that amateurism isn’t really a principle in the true sense of the word.

No one struggles every day to grow more amateur in their conduct. No parent ever told their child, “It’s important to always be amateur.” No one ever justified a tough decision by saying, “It’s just the amateur thing to do.”

No public official ever called for a new birth of amateurism. No country ever went to war to make the world safe for amateurism. There are no parables about amateurism in the Bible, no fables about amateurism in Aesop’s, and no self-help books about achieving amateurism on Amazon. Amateurism isn’t a principle, it’s an innocent noun caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, staggering under the weight the NCAA has placed upon it.

It’s a mark of the NCAA’s success in transforming the word into something totemic that so many putative critics of the NCAA speak of amateurism as though it really were both a capital-P Principle and a fragile chalice in imminent danger of being smashed to pieces. We’ve reached the point where amateurism is to college sports roughly what steroids are to baseball, in that both act as catalysts for reliably formulaic writing. The formula for writing about amateurism mandates that I decry the “hypocrisy” of an NCAA that accepts billions of dollars in TV revenue but prohibits student-athletes from receiving anything more than a scholarship.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of this particular formula. For better or worse both the organization and its Principle were in place for decades before the TV money rolled in. Only when you and I and tens of millions of others decided that we really, really like watching March Madness was the NCAA inundated with cash. Forgive me if I’m not on the front lines shouting: “You greedy hypocrites! How dare you adhere to the stated mission of your century-old organization even though you’ve recently stumbled into a ton of money that I personally make possible!”

The trouble with amateurism isn’t that it’s being enforced by a peculiarly well-heeled organization. The trouble is that “enforcing” something as unthreatened and commonplace as amateurism is simply odd to begin with, like “enforcing” shyness, procrastination, or eye contact.

Amateurism and professionalism coexist naturally and strike their own bargains every day of the week in non-NCAA settings. I suppose the NCAA’s attempt to wall off that natural order and create a cordon sanitaire where amateurism will reign supreme over even the most promising young football and basketball players in the world is in some quixotic sense noble, like the dogged resistance and inner conviction of an Amish community or a family that uses the metric system. But that attempt entails tremendous costs.

The NCAA has taken something pleasant, ubiquitous, and innocuous — we’re all amateurs in certain aspects of our lives — and fetishized it to the level of Holy Writ, with an investigative bureau to match. They didn’t do it consciously, and indeed given the series of historical coincidences present at the organization’s creation it’s hard to see how they could have done otherwise.

Maybe if the NCAA had been founded to oversee baseball (which was already thoroughly professionalized a century ago) instead of football (which was then an amateur sport in all but its seediest manifestations) the organization would today have a relaxed and naturalistic view of amateurism and the ways in which it can blend peaceably with professionalism. But it wasn’t founded that way, and it doesn’t have that view. The NCAA is a child of the Progressive era and its attitude toward professionalism is every bit as supple and nuanced as the FDA’s attitude toward patent medicines or tainted meat.

When Theodore Roosevelt summoned five university presidents to the White House in 1905 to discuss college football, amateurism was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The issue at hand was safety. Players were dying that fall and even Roosevelt’s own son, Ted, had suffered a broken nose playing for Harvard. Ted’s father thus called together the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the two service academies. The following spring saw the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, a governing body which was renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910.

Professional football, by contrast, was a marginal endeavor at best, one that certainly didn’t merit presidential attention. Various professional leagues predated even the most embryonic form of the NFL (established in 1920), and John M. Carroll has noted that as far back as the 1890s talented college players received offers to turn pro. Still, most of those players turned the offers down because, as Yale’s Amos Alonzo Stagg put it, “the whole tone of the [professional] game was smelly.”

Stagg’s attitude was widely shared. The university presidents who conferred with Roosevelt didn’t stay up nights worrying that their privileged young men would be lured away from academe by the likes of the Massillon Tigers. Then again the dons couldn’t have known that football was about to explode in popularity, much less that the sport’s rapid expansion would elevate its governing body, the fledgling NCAA, to a surprisingly prominent position within American sports.

Colleges and universities had traditionally accommodated if not encouraged intercollegiate competition, but what football triggered next was unprecedented. The game flourished on campuses in the northeast where well-to-do students could afford to pursue football as an avocation. (At a time when just two percent of the nation’s 23-year-olds had a college degree, attending any college, much less an Ivy League school, marked a student as a member of a very tiny elite.)

When fans referred to a “Big Three” in football, they were talking about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Much like an NFL game today, a college game back then customarily featured players who were much better off financially than the spectators in the stands. Amateurism was easy for scions straight out of an Edith Wharton novel, ones affluent enough to disdain not simply professional sports but indeed any profession, period.

But while actual participation in organized football was largely the preserve of the elite, it quickly became clear that the game held mass appeal as a spectator sport. Between World War I and the Great Depression, universities and municipalities went on a building boom, erecting stadia with capacities that would have seemed outlandish just a few years before.

The Yale Bowl, with a capacity of 70,000, opened in 1914, the first stadium with “Bowl” in its name. New Haven’s revolutionary new stadium — each spectator had an unobstructed view of the field, which in turn was completely surrounded by seats — provided the basic design template for both the Rose Bowl (1922) and Michigan Stadium (1927), among others.

Universities reacted to football’s spectacular emergence in their midst with a mixture of wonder and foreboding. If football built strong bodies and stronger characters for its participants, it was never entirely clear what it did for spectators, much less how staging spectacles for tens of thousands of people related to the mission of higher education. As a result some universities opted out entirely. MIT, for example, dropped the sport during the “crisis” of 1905-06.

And yet there was no denying the fact that people loved watching football, particularly the exciting new variant that was adopted partly to assuage concerns about safety. The game now featured fewer rugby-style scrums, more movement, and even an occasional forward pass. It was called the new football, and it gave rise to one of the era’s most celebrated figures, one who challenged the prevailing assumptions of Ivy-brand amateurism.

Red Grange had great timing. The sport was more popular than ever. The new facilities that were being built in these years were a vast improvement over the crude stands of bleachers or even open fields that had until recently hosted the sport. (The University of Illinois opened its vast new Memorial Stadium just in time for the crowds that would clamor to see Grange.) And writers like Grantland Rice were perfecting the art of minting sports legends.

Not that Grange’s feats required too much embellishment. In the first game ever played at Memorial Stadium, on October 18, 1924, Grange scored four touchdowns and recorded over 240 total yards against Michigan in the contest’s first 12 minutes.

In 1925 Grange left Illinois prior to completing his coursework and signed a contract with the Chicago Bears for a 19-game barnstorming tour. The star’s share of the gate receipts would net him $100,000. Carroll has documented the uproar that ensued as newspapers across the country, up to and including the New York Times, weighed in on Grange’s decision to go pro.

One Illinois paper said Grange’s action “must be distinctly harmful to any institution in that it confirms critics who contend colleges have gone daft on interscholastic athletic contests and that education has been lost in the shuffle.” The Christian Science Monitor was more acidulous: “James Russell Lowell once wrote that a university was a place where nothing useful was taught. How admirably Illinois has answered this slur by so instructing an undergraduate that he could earn a million dollars without even the formality of graduating!”

When Grange returned to Champaign that fall for the team’s postseason banquet, coach Bob Zuppke devoted a portion of his remarks to berating his star to his face, saying he didn’t want any more $100,000 a year players in his program. The Big Ten responded to the controversy by prohibiting anyone who’d ever played football professionally from being employed as a coach in the conference. Clearly frightened by the backlash, the NFL sought to quiet critics by passing what it called the “Grange Rule,” whereby no player could be signed to a contract until his college class had graduated.

Grange is often credited with establishing the NFL, but his decision may actually have been more of a mixed blessing for pro football, at least in the short term. If editorial writers were representative of the general population, people were rather more inclined to think less of Grange than they were to think more of the NFL.

Indeed for the vast majority of top college players who followed in Grange’s wake, the most socially acceptable and even remunerative decision to be made with respect to football was still to pursue it as an avocation while preparing for a real career. The first winner of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger, chose not to play pro football even though in 1936 he was the number one overall pick in the NFL’s first-ever draft.

What Grange did accomplish, though, was to bring to the surface a question that was unavoidable. If vast numbers of people were willing to pay to see football, how long could it really be before a stable and profitable professional league successfully catered to that desire? Amateurism was a frictionless ideology for the college game to espouse when the professional ranks either didn’t exist or were simply beyond the pale of polite society.

Keeping professionalism at bay made perfect sense when the profession in question was pro football circa 1910. But non-baseball professional sports were following an arc first charted by the national pastime, gradually becoming more popular and even more socially accepted as second jobs.

Take pro basketball. In his autobiography, John Wooden told of graduating from Purdue in 1932 in the depths of the depression and being offered five thousand dollars a year to play basketball professionally (or, as he put it, to “barnstorm around the country”).

That kind of money was “unheard of” in 1932, Wooden said. “[S]ome teachers who also coached were making as little as nine hundred dollars a year. Eighteen hundred dollars was considered a fine salary.” Wooden went to his college coach, Ward “Piggy” Lambert, to discuss his next move.

“What did you come to Purdue for?” [Lambert] asked, after hearing me out.
“To get an education,” I told him.
“Did you get one?”
“I think so.”
“You’re not going to use it?” he asked.
“I hope to.”
“Well, you won’t be using it barnstorming around the country playing basketball. You’re not that type of person.”

Lambert appeared to think the question was whether Wooden should play professionally. For Wooden, however, the only question was which professional offer he was going to accept.

While he ended up turning this offer down, Wooden, like Grange, started playing professionally the moment his athletic eligibility was exhausted, earning $900 “from barnstorming games around Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky during the spring and summer after the end of my senior season at Purdue.” But Wooden also returned to West Lafayette often enough to earn his degree, and after graduation he accepted a full-time position as “athletic director, coach, and teacher” at a high school in Dayton, Kentucky.

In other words Wooden was able to play professionally during the summers and on weekends without jeopardizing his employment at his high school. The stigma against non-baseball professional team sports was weakening long before the NFL’s emergence on a solid footing or even the inception of the NBA. The moment the professional ranks included a Wooden, the straightest of straight arrows, it was time to revisit some assumptions about amateurism’s alleged monopoly on propriety.

Over the ensuing decades as a career in professional football or basketball became possible, lucrative, and eminently respectable, college sports needed a new rationale for amateurism, one that would resonate for athletes who weren’t necessarily as wealthy as Ivy League players circa 1914. Today that rationale is summed up in the NCAA’s “Basic Purpose”:

The competitive athletics programs of member institutions are designed to be a vital part of the education system. A basic purpose of this Association is to maintain intercollegiate athletic as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.

Note “retain.” There was once a clear line, but one might say it’s been blurring ever since Red Grange left school without a degree. Nevertheless the real question, Grange or no Grange, is why there has to be a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports in the first place.

What are the tangible benefits of such a line to students? Are those benefits commensurate with the tremendous cost of maintaining it and with living under the investigative regime that will inevitably be required to enforce it (however imperfectly)? Would the student-athlete experience of, say, a swimmer really be so irretrievably compromised if a basketball player received an advance from an agent? How, exactly?

In its actions if not its phrasings, the NCAA defines amateurism mainly in the negative, as a lack of remuneration. But the word’s etymology hints at a less antiseptic and more affirming definition. Similarities between “amateur,” “amorous,” and “amore” are no accident. An amateur pursues something simply for the love of it, regardless of any monetary gain.

That’s precisely what the overwhelming majority of college athletes do. From the NCAA’s inception as a governing body for football only, its reach has expanded to the point where the organization administers championships in more than 30 men’s and women’s sports. Thus the ads you see every March are true. All but the tiniest sliver of student-athletes do go pro in something besides sports.

The best thing to be said about the NCAA is that they’ve proven themselves both savvy enough to negotiate a $10.8 billion deal for March Madness and benevolent enough to turn around and spread that wealth to member institutions and their non-revenue sports. (“Savvy” and “benevolent” don’t necessarily coincide every day. NCAA, take a bow.) The mass of student-athletes is helped materially by the attentions lavished upon the aforementioned tiny sliver.

Then again the sliver matters too. To do what you love heedless of monetary gain isn’t the same thing as doing what you love while being expressly prohibited from realizing any monetary gain. Let’s forthrightly load the polemical deck here by terming the former positive amateurism and the latter negative amateurism. The fact that the NCAA labors so strenuously to make college campuses safe for its particular brand of negative amateurism is ironic, given that this wall of separation between love and work is ritually condemned on graduation days across the land.

Any commencement speaker worth his or her salt will tell you that true contentment lies in pursuing whatever monetary gain and/or personal renown you may require by doing precisely that which you love. Every time Dick Vitale says “I can’t believe we’re getting paid for this,” he signals that amore and professionalism don’t have to be segregated sequentially.

Alas this lesson appears to have been lost on the NCAA. Like John Calhoun’s doctrine of the concurrent majority, the NCAA’s beau ideal of mandatory negative amateurism carries with it a whiff of too much rationalization in defense of an aging and besieged idea. There was a time when the kind of justifications offered today on negative amateurism’s behalf were being brought forth to justify excluding professional athletes from the Olympics. Then the United States lost the gold medal game in basketball to the Soviet Union, and with uncanny alacrity many supporters of the amateur ideal decided it might be time for the U.S. to join the rest of the world after all.

Twenty years after that defeat, a Dream Team laden with professionals — including Charles Barkley, who has since admitted receiving loans from an agent while he played at Auburn — beat the stuffing out of any team unfortunate enough to get in their way, to the eminent satisfaction of all involved. (Including the vanquished foes, who often as not queued up for Dream Team autographs afterward.) Professional athletes are now allowed to represent the United States in the Olympics. They have been for a good long while. And the world has continued to spin.

The world would continue to spin if tomorrow the NCAA said, in effect, amateurism’s a tough old gal, one who needs rather less helicopter-parenting and certainly way fewer bylaws. The nut grafs of the press release from Indianapolis would go something like this:

The NCAA and its member institutions today acknowledge that in a limited number of highly visible instances the clear line of demarcation between college and pro sports will be more like a permeable membrane. That’s fine. It’s not cause for panic. In fact it’s a happy day for the student-athlete so singled out by the professional ranks.

For our part we’re introducing a new post-1910 student-athlete-centered model of positive amateurism, one that doubles down on academic achievement and education in the broadest sense of the term. In exchange for henceforth being permitted to sign with an NBA- or NFL-certified agent, athletes would be required to meet and maintain a slightly higher standard for academic eligibility than that which is in place now. It’s a bucks-for-books quid pro quo.

In the world at large there is, of course, nothing wrong with an agent signing a player who’s legally an adult. It’s what agents do. In such cases both the agent and the player are operating according to a calculus of incentives that is in place for almost literally every other profession and transaction under the sun.

Nevertheless the NCAA doesn’t simply prohibit players from receiving anything of value from agents (or anyone else), the organization additionally bans the mere promissory act of agreeing to be represented by an agent someday — even if no money changes hands and the agreement’s unwritten. Reasonable people can differ on the wisdom of trying to police even the promises made between consenting adults, but I dare say the level of pre-authorized intrusiveness implicit in such a rule should trigger an instinctual shudder. I suggest this shudder is correct, instructive, and, not least, avoidable.

Today agents and their representatives are often making their initial contacts with the most elite basketball players during the high school years. The NCAA can unite with the rest of the contract-compatible world outside of North Korea by simply allowing a player to compete collegiately while being signed to that agent they’ve known for so long.

If an accredited agent wants to put their money at risk by advancing it to a player who may or may not become a first-round draft pick someday, so be it. If a college coach wants to risk some of his authority in exchange for getting that player, so be it.

Who knows, there’s a chance such a coach could become a marginal and somewhat pitiful figure, like many NBA head coaches not named Phil Jackson. Maybe having players who’ve already signed with agents will be detrimental to team chemistry. Coaches will have to make that determination. Players and their families will have to decide if they want to sign with an agent and, if so, which one.

Among likely first-round prospects, some players will sign with an agent and take an advance. Some will just sign on the dotted line and leave it at that. And some will wait until they submit their name to the draft. Everyone involved — players, families, coaches, and agents — will have to make their best decision and live with the outcome.

In other words the NCAA would enable student-athletes, in exchange for performing at an acceptable level academically, to pursue what they love heedless of money — sort of what the NCAA says it’s been doing all along. But “heedless” here means that whether money materializes or not the NCAA wishes you well, so long as said money doesn’t come from the school or on its behalf. You’re a big kid now and you can handle these decisions.

Speaking of which, as part of an across-the-board rollback of in loco parentis the new-look NCAA would get out of the phone-records audit business entirely. Recruits and their families can decide how many phone calls they want to field from which coach and when. The NCAA could maintain a central no-contact registry where recruits could sign up to end the calls, but aside from that I’m enough of a reckless utopian to believe that programs and prospects will be able to work out their own accommodation without the hitherto vital intercession of bylaws and subparagraphs.

If you were starting an NCAA today instead of inheriting one from 1910, this might be more or less what it’d look like. I happen to think the NCAA’s credibility and standing would improve, perhaps markedly so, if the organization stopped straining every investigatory muscle to enforce total negative amateurism and instead demonstrated through its actions an unwavering commitment to bringing academic achievement together with doing what you love athletically. Maybe the result would be a less troubled amateurism, one worth defending on principle.