College sports were never really amateur
Good morning to everybody except the Peach Bowl officiating crew, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I hope you all had a wonderful holiday break. I tried to spend a little bit of mine catching up on some reading. I try to focus on stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with college sports during these breaks, but I also made time to try and fly through Ronald A. Smith's The Myth of the Amateur: A History of College Athletic Scholarships.
I've long been a fan of Smith's scholarship. I consider Play-By-Play: Radio, Television and Big-Time College Sport to be an essential text for anybody curious about the history of college athletics and business, and Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics was excellent as well. They'd be worthy additions to your library.
I'm hardly a serious professional college sports historian, but I've read enough to understand that one of the main themes of the last 150+ years is that we're mostly still arguing over the same problems. The numbers go up, the scale grows, but most editorials about player safety, labor classification, recruiting regulations and whether college athletics is too important relative to the academy itself could be published in 2022 or 1932.
As I expect 2023 to be a critically important year in debating the future of the "Collegiate Model," or whatever it is we're calling it these days, revisiting that history could be particularly instructive.
Let's take the very first intercollegiate sporting event. It was a lot of things. But it wasn't amateur.
Convention dictates that I credit Rutgers and Princeton for playing the "first" college football game in 1869, even if that game was much closer to violent soccer than it was anything resembling football. But that wasn't even close to the first college sporting event. Intercollegiate track, baseball and rowing predated the first college football game by well over a decade.
As best as I understand it, the first intercollegiate sporting event was a crew meet between Harvard and Yale in 1852, held at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Surely the first event ever, held well before television broadcasting, the automobile, NIL collectives, Nike, or even the statehood of Oregon, would properly hew to the sacred principles of amateurism, established by Oxford and Cambridge...right?
Nah. Per Smith:
Why, that entire event just smacks of commercialism! That's exactly the sort of thing that would become an NCAA violation.
Smith also writes that even before college football became a thing, professionalism began to creep into intercollegiate rowing. Smith wrote that several intercollegiate races in the 1870s gave significant cash prizes to the winners, including one that gave "silver goblets worth over $500...when the average laborer's wages were...$300 a year."
Because of those cash prizes, college rowing programs began to take training seriously, and even hired professional coaches. While college football coaches typically earned the highest salaries, easily surpassing what professors made even in the early 1900s, Smith points out that it was not uncommon for schools to hire professional coaches for rowing, baseball, and track.
And after paid coaches, of course, came free food, superior lodging, cash benefits, and even NIL deals. Take this story here about James Hogan, an elite football player at Yale from 1901-1904:
The first NIL king in college football was Yale's James Hogan...in 1901.
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP)
Dec 27, 2022
Could you imagine how lucrative an affiliate marketing contract for cigarettes must have been in 1901? Back when we thought smoking was healthy??? James Hogan would have thought 1980s SMU was poor.
Why couldn't schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton maintain a true amateur collegiate model for more than like, three weeks?
The idea of the moral superiority of an amateur system of athletics, as Smith and others have argued, stems from Oxford and Cambridge in England, the model universities that most elite American institutions were trying to emulate at the time. Students participated in all kinds of sporting activities across the pond, but there were no massive crowds, no professional coaches, no bagmen, etc.
Part of that is because of England's rigid social class structure, where the elite in society didn't want to play sports against mechanics and laborers.
Despite the preferences and sensibilities of elite professors and university administrators, who may have shared views on class and elitism with their Oxford peers, that system wasn't really possible to exactly replicate in America. Smith argues that unlike in England, two institutions couldn't completely monopolize higher education or upper-class values. And while nobody should argue that a country that didn't have universal suffrage and still practiced slavery was a true meritocracy, white male Americans enjoyed more class mobility than in 1860s England. The idea that a star athlete shouldn't be able to succeed at a high level, just because his parents didn't know Cicero from Cincinnati, is downright un-American.
So we, as a country, decided to basically ignore those rules, even as university presidents and professors felt like they had to advocate for them. Even before the era of mass radio broadcasts, trying to maintain steadfast fidelity to amateurism was making hypocrites of universities.
How athletic scholarships fit into this argument really stuck out to me
The idea of giving out an athletic scholarship is uncontroversial to most Americans these days outside of perhaps the most hardcore academic elitist or New England-based legacy magazine circles. But that wasn't always the case! The idea of whether athletic scholarships should be permitted was a major cultural, political and financial battleground before the late 1950s.
John Tigert, president of the University of Florida, was one of the leading voices to push for athletic scholarships in the 1930s, even as the NCAA advocated for policies that would forbid "all subsidies" to athletes, including loans, scholarships, remission of fees, etc. Tigert, along with many other leaders of southern institutions, believed that his schools were at a competitive disadvantage since their communities did not have the population size to support dozens of pretend make-work jobs that many Big Ten institutions used to recruit athletes. If everybody else was trying to subsidize athletics on the sly, out-in-the-open offers for scholarships, books, board and laundry would, ideally, level the playing field.
Sure, there was a political angle here too (surprise, the southern institutions favored 'Home Rule' over allowing a national governing body to set policy for them), but these administrators also believed this approach would be more honest. And with the benefit of hindsight, I think it's hard to argue with them!
Eventually, the other major conferences in college athletics came to agree with the SEC. As the Big Ten grappled with whether they would permit athletic scholarships, I was struck by this argument from Iowa president Virgil Hancher, who, interestingly enough, previously studied at Oxford.
Writing to his Big Ten colleagues about the Oxford/Cambridge model, and athletic scholarships, he wrote, per Smith:
Hancher followed, arguing that it would be unrealistic to require athletic aid to be limited only to need, as need was not the primary distinction used for music, theater or debating scholarships.
He then issued a recommendation that I think the NCAA and current athletic administrators would do well to heed as we head into 2023:
Moving towards direct, standardized athletic scholarship packages was a step in that direction. Not a complete step, as the last 70 years of NCAA policy enforcement demonstrates, but a step.
So where do we go from here?
I don't profess to have all the answers....but I do think it is important we examine exactly where we are right now, and where this system has been, as clear-eyed as possible.
If we define 'the collegiate model' as one where athletes are not paid for their services, where they operate as purely students pursuing an extracurricular activity, and where they pursue athletic success purely for the sake of sport, that model does not exist now, and has never meaningfully existed in the United States. Even at the D-III level, coaches are paid full-time salaries, sports information directors exist, multimedia rights are sold, etc. If you dragged some old-school traditionalist like Caspar Whitney out to a D-III athletic department today, he'd probably still be aghast at how professionalized it was.
My reading of the last 150+ years is that college sports governing bodies have shifted in what they deemed to be acceptable adaptations to the amateur ideal. Hiring a coach used to be controversial, now nobody bats an idea when Florida football hires like, 60. Athletic scholarships used to be controversial, now we even offer them to Ultimate Frisbee athletes. I remember when dozens of schools howled that cost of attendance payments would cripple the enterprise. Now almost everybody offers it, even low-majors. Many administrators fought tooth and nail against any NIL payments, now it's rare that an AD will go anywhere near a microphone and say they're against the system. The list goes on.
I am personally still of the opinion that the current status quo of big-time college athletics makes hypocrites of athletes and institutions. The status quo requires us to pretend that high school athletes with 3000 Instagram followers are "marketable" enough to command seven-figure stipends from collectives that, of course, have nothing to do with athletic recruitment.
We have to pretend that the college experience for an athlete that has maybe ten hours of unscheduled time a week is the same as the college experience that you and I had.
We have to pretend that schools just magically happen to spend exactly the same amount of money they earned from their athletic departments, that embracing partnerships with gambling companies is for the benefit of the student-athlete experience, just like cross-country flights on a Tuesday, or playing a basketball game on Christmas while the rest of campus is closed.
I don't write all of this to say that there is nothing praiseworthy about the current college sports industry. I don't think ADs or commissioners are blowing smoke when they talk about how college sports is a massive scholarship program, an engine of human development that is nearly unrivaled globally, an institution that improves the lives of thousands of college students a year. I think all of that is exactly correct. If I didn't like this industry, I wouldn't be writing about it!
But eventually, the courts or congress or the NLRB may decide that we can't legally pretend those all of those other things are true anymore. In order to best create a new system, I believe we must contend with reality. College sports isn't a Walter Camp novel. It never was.
That doesn't make it bad. It just isn't amateur. At least, not by any definition other than "because we said so."
And that line doesn't even work on my kids anymore. It won't work in front of federal judges forever.
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