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GUEST COLUMN: The Myth of Amateurism

By: Jay Helman
October 15, 2017 Updated: October 15, 2017 at 4:05 am
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The NCAA announced the formation of a commission "to study the inner workings of college basketball in response to a federal investigation into bribery and fraud that rocked the sport and implicated several assistant coaches." NCAA President Mark Emmert said "I believe we can - and we must - find a way to protect the integrity of college sports."

The committee will no doubt look at lax NCAA enforcement efforts; opportunistic AAU summer coaches out to profit from the attention captured by star players on their summer "showcase" teams; and university coaches willing to collude with profiteering shoe companies to sign elite players. They will also examine the impact of the "one and done" rule which allows a recently graduated high school senior to play one year of college basketball and then be eligible for the NBA draft.

Concern about "one and done" is that companies such as Adidas solicit players with enticements to attend one of their sponsored universities and assure a lucrative shoe contract once the player makes the NBA.

Committee members will devote time to each of these symptoms and overlook the essential problem plaguing big-time college sports.

The problem is that amateurism is not, and has never been, a workable framework for American college sports. Among the current voices only Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski seems to understand this structural problem. Asked about the current scandal, Coach K remarked that "it has forced a dialogue about amateurism." He knows the challenges of recruiting and retaining elite athletes with the talent to make the Duke program a national power. Elite talent is rare, and it has market value. If that value is not resolved openly, it will find backdoor venues that erupt in scandal and cries for reform.

The NCAA/Adidas scandal reveals the consequences of holding onto the myth that big-time intercollegiate athletics is an amateur enterprise. The question is whether the scandal will force serious reconsideration of the myth of amateurism that began in the 19th century.

Intercollegiate sport competition began 165 years ago when rowing clubs from Harvard and Yale met on Lake Winnepesaukee, N.H. The event was organized by railroad entrepreneur James Elkins. He wanted to promote his railroad line connecting Boston to the summer resort in New Hampshire. He paid for a week of room and board for Yale and Harvard crew members in return for them staging a publicized match.

Two prestigious colleges competing against one another had the desired effect. Alumni and the general public followed the event and interest in intercollegiate competition has remained strong since that day. Interest exploded in late 19th century America, leaving college faculty and administrators unprepared for its management and governance. They had only the British model of amateurism to build upon.

The 19th-century British aristocracy created the concept of amateurism as a means to govern sport and to keep the "working class" from competing against the upper-class gentry. To assure against embarrassing competitive losses to those who worked, the upper class simply eliminated the possibility with an amateur rule barring eligibility to those who "used their hands in working for a living." Aristocrats proudly claimed to compete solely for the joy of sport. The noble intent of amateurism appealed to American college leaders and was seen as a way to temper the competitive drive of student-run athletic teams. The problem is that it didn't work. Amateurism evolved into an unworkable governance system that has resulted in over a century and a half of violations, scandals, and compromised integrity in college sports.

It is revealing that the first intercollegiate contest was staged to promote a for-profit business. Despite this, college officials insist on living by the dysfunctional myth of amateurism.

Adidas paying talented young athletes at company-sponsored universities 165 years later is a natural evolution. The NCAA committee would do well to consider how young talent can be compensated by private enterprise for their talent. The time has come to consider this issue in real terms.

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Jay Helman is president emeritus of Western State Colorado University, serving from 2002 to 2013.

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