By now there’s a good chance you’ve read Taylor Branch’s Atlantic story “The Shame of College Sports.” If you haven’t and are interested in the topic, it’s very good. Branch, the great civil-rights historian most famous for his trilogy on America in the MLK years, comes at a familiar subject from an interesting angle, particularly the legal status of amateur athletics and how it provides a work-around for workman’s comp.
Brooks’s response to the problem Branch laid out is a little puzzling. By way of background, Brooks tells us that “today’s left-leaning historians generally excoriate the amateur ideal for its snobbery and the hypocrisy it engendered. The movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ popularized their critique. In the film, the upholders of the amateur ideal are snobbish, anti-Semitic reactionaries. The heroes are unabashedly commercial and practical. Modern and free-thinking, they pay people so they can win.
“Thus did the left-wing critique welcome the corporate domination of sport.”
Brooks declares that the “1910s and 1920s were the golden age of the amateur ideal. On the golf courses, Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer of all time, won a string of major championships.” And furthermore: “Capitalism was rough and raw. The amateur ideal was a restraining code that emphasized fair play and honor…. On the other hand, the amateur code was elitist. It was designed to separate the affluent sports from the working-class sports, to create a refined arena that only the well-bred and well-born could enter.”
This struck me because I was reading up on the history of the Bears-Packers rivalry today, for obvious reasons. And I came across an editorial from the Daily Tribune from 1925 entitled “Red Grange, Commodity.” Which reflects what David Brooks wrote yesterday—the same arguments, the same worries—in the New York Times. The critique of amateur athletics as elitist is identical:
Nor is being a professional football player a disgrace. It can be as clean as the amateur game, and now is. As it is played by such a team of post-graduates as Grange’s own Chicago Bears it is football plus, a brand of the game superior to that seen on nineteen out of twenty college gridirons.
What professional football will do to college football still remains to be seen. We are inclined to think it will bring sanity to graduates and undergraduates and turn college football back into the old channels of a normal sport. It has been expanded into a colossus far out of proportion to its real value to the men who play it or the colleges that foster it. It has been turned into an unhealthy mania….
It is hard to account for the stigma of the professional. It is honorable for a man to work with his brains or his hands: more lately, he may even act upon the stage or do acrobatics for his livelihood and still retain his honor. But he must not run or jump, or play baseball or football for money; for that is professionalism. It is a survival, probably, of ancient days when certain sports could be enjoyed by the titled few. As they cherished their privilege and did not want tough competition, so does the amateur today cherish his.
If the left-wing critique has finally won, it’s been a long time coming, and from Col. McCormick’s Tribune, of all places. And it goes back farther than that. Here’s an editorial, “The Evolution of Football,” from 1895, which resembles Branch’s critique in the Atlantic about worker protections for college athletes, and is just eerily prescient in general:
It would appear now that football is about to enter upon another stage of its evolutionary progress. Hitherto it has been confined to amateur games between school boys and college boys, but since “society” has take it up and patronized it so unanimously there is the danger that the game will degenerate from amateur into professional hands, as baseball has done…. There are scores of players who scarcely know enough to earn a dollar a day at any other vocation, and who earn more money in a year than they ever earned before in their lives….
It is evident that before long football will become a professional game and teams will be made up of men picked out for special ability in driving a pigskin and will be paid for it. Society now seems to favor that kind of education above all others in the college curriculum…. For some time to come football will be the fad and society will not long be contented with amateur games. It will demand a gladatorial show for its money. The amateur will be too tame for the fierce spectator. He will expect teams specially organized with reference to the maximum outlay of muscle, and will not be satisfied if heads, arms, and legs are not broken. When society reaches this point it should also demand that the owners and managers of teams provide their gladiators with accident and life policies, so that those who are killed may leave something to their sorrowing relatives who have been bereaved by this new departure in modern collegiate education.
Arguably, the Tribune was a little late to the game in calling for “accident and life policies.” Nonetheless, conditions got worse. As Branch points out:
In an 1892 game against its archrival, Yale, the Harvard football team was the first to deploy a “flying wedge,” based on Napoleon’s surprise concentrations of military force. In an editorial calling for the abolition of the play, The New York Times described it as “half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” noting that surgeons often had to be called onto the field.
A newspaper story from , illustrated with the Grim Reaper laughing on a goalpost, counted 25 college players killed during football season.
It’s no secret that there was major tension between amateur and professional athletics in the early 20th century, but far from being the “golden age of the amateur ideal,” the day as reflected in the Daily Tribune was as practical (or, alternately, cynical) as you like. Here’s Westbrook Pegler writing in 1929:
Just as at present, the University of Iowa is in disgrace for using players who were pros in the intercollegiate sense, but I find the representatives of other universities in the conference admitting that Iowa came to grief only because Iowa conducted these evasions of the rule in an efficient manner. Instead of being supplied with mock jobs, the boys at Iowa were frankly given their money, which spared them the waste of motion by reporting to a haberdashery once a day and selling one necktie or one collar button. It seems ironical in the age of the go-getter that efficiency should be penalized to this extent, although the penalty may prove to have been negligible in the end.
The “golden age of the amateur ideal"? Here’s the Trib editorial page in 1921:
There is not much excuse for the amateur class anyway. There is a great deal of reason for keeping college sports confined to boys who are in college, honestly there for what the college can give them. Amateur is merely another name for inferiority. The distinction is one maintained by inferior men to protect their status from the abilities of the really expert. The only valid question in a college is whether the boy is a real, genuine student, not whether he is a professional or not, or whether by the shading of a rule he could be called one.
Taylor Branch’s essay, as well as prominent, excellent recent work by Sports Illustrated makes me think that change might be coming sooner rather than later. But it’s been a long time coming: about as long as we’ve had professional sports in America.
Photograph: Cat Sidh (CC by 2.0)