A gentleman playing sport just for the fun of it

One of the fun little observations it’s possible to make about the Americans is that they’re near the last holdout of the aristocratic ideal of amateur sport. That the gentlemen only play for amusement – it being rather a definition of being a gentleman that one does only play for amusement. Or perhaps to build up the body for empire conquering, where that isn’t better achieved by guile and lying.

We in Britain has rather dispensed with this now, the Players and Gentlemen distinction in cricket has gone (memory tells that each actually entered the pitch through different gates? Certainly, a Mr. would appear beside the name on the scorecard or not to show who was being offered filthy lucre). The Olympics finally agreed, as did athletics, that the lies about trust funds and pensions to be accessed after “sport” was finished were no longer needed.

US college sports haven’t quite got there yet:

It is incredible to me that we still fetishize amateurism, which in a large sense is just a holdover from British and other European aristocracies. Historically, the mark of the true aristocrat was one who was completely unproductive. I am not exaggerating — doing any paid work of any sort made one a tradesman, and at best lowered ones status (in England) or essentially caused your aristocratic credentials to be revoked (France).

The whole notion of amateurism was originally tied up in this aristocratic nonsense. It’s fine to play cricket or serve in Parliament unpaid, but take money for doing so and you are out. This had the benefit of essentially clearing the pitch in both politics and sports (and even fields like science, for a time) for the aristocracy, since no one else could afford to dedicate time to these pursuits and not get paid. These attitudes carried over into things like the Olympics and even early American baseball, though both eventually gave up on the concept as outdated.

But the one last bastion of support of these old British aristocratic privileges is the NCAA, which still dedicates enormous resources, with an assist from the FBI, to track down anyone who gets a dollar when they are a college athlete.

Quite so, we agree. Of course the American colleges are guilty of something much worse than just that snobbery about trade. They make fortunes off the backs of the unpaid at the same time as they tell them they’re getting a free college education. No one at all thinking that someone who got in on a sporting scholarship got taught anything at all. It’s all the most obvious lies that promise of an education.

An interesting little story of the implications of this amateurism being the manner in which the Kenyans don’t do ultra-marathons:

Since getting involved in ultrarunning a few years ago, I have followed the race online each August. The start is stirring stuff: more than 2,000 athletes gather in the town of Chamonix in the Alps, with the sport’s crème de la crème gathered at the front. These are the supermen and superwomen who will race around the 105-mile route at mind-boggling speeds. They are among the greatest athletes on Earth.

Yet, watching it, I saw a big, red flag flying that no one else seemed to mention. Everyone on the start line was white. If these were the world’s greatest distance runners, where were the Kenyans?

I don’t need to explain to readers of this blog that Kenyans, along with their neighbours in Ethiopia, dominate the world of long-distance running in distances up to and including the marathon. After that, however, they don’t feature. Why?

Indeed, why?

The big barrier to this is, of course, was money. In Kenya, there are no managers looking for ultrarunners, no one willing to pay for a plane ticket to a race in the hope of cashing in on a share of the winnings. This is because the winnings are small or non-existent. Money is a key motivator for many Kenyan athletes: running offers them a way to change their lives, to escape poverty and to help their families and communities. They don’t always have the luxury of doing it just for the love of it.

Amateur sport means poor people can’t afford to do it. Rather the original point being made, isn’t it? And the distinction does lead to corruption, as LeBron James points out:

College athletes aren’t supposed to be paid but with many of them coming from poor backgrounds, James dismissed the notion that the relationship between students and institutions is a fair one.

“Obviously, I’ve never been a part of it, so I don’t know all the ins and outs about it. I don’t know all the rules and regulations about it, but I do know what five-star athletes bring to a campus, both in basketball and football,” James said. “I know how much these college coaches get paid. I know how much these colleges are gaining off these kids … I’ve always heard the narrative that they get a free education, but you guys are not bringing me on campus to get an education, you guys are bringing me on it to help you get to a Final Four or to a national championship, so it’s just a weird thing.”

In other words, it’s all a business now and why shouldn’t the workers be getting a wage? Many of them are of course, already – we did say corruption, didn’t we? – and the only reason it’s not open and above all fair value is because the private law here says they can’t. As so often, the employers needing and having to use privilege, that private law, in order to be able to screw the workers. A free market would quickly establish the worth of that labour and ensure it was paid for.

Or as the NCAA is really an example of – free markets cause fair wages, un-free ones don’t.

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  1. Of course they are not on campus to get an education. That is why American colleges have African or African American Studies. They are there to play. Even if they are illiterate thugs with long criminal records. Which makes you wonder why they do it. Earning post-“graduation” I suppose.

    Money does change sport. When an amateur sport becomes popular of course there is money and that money distorts the sport. Like when cricket players are paid for weather reports.

    But professional sports are also distorted by money. Ask Lance Armstrong. Ask anyone who follows any Italian football team apart from Juventus and AC Milan.

    I tend to agree that college sport should go professional. Better to be open about it.

    • You are right that Division I universities with a budget for full scholarships for gifted athletes (the one legal way to “pay” them) do not care whether they educate them, beyond devising a curriculum to house them during days when they do not have practice sessions, and that only to maintain the fiction. Not only ought universities to get honest about this, the NFL needs a feeder league. The stadia are already built, and a loose affiliation with the university would bring the fans along.

      • If only the dumb ex-colonials would observe that it is perfectly possible to educate sportsmen, as Teddy Hall does to rugger players and several colleges (including Teddy Hall) do to the Rhodes Scholars selected for their sporting rather than academic ability, as prescribed in Cecil Rhodes’ Will.

    • “College sport should go professional” – Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. Most undergraduates sportspeople play sport for pleasure and that is good for their health and sleep and consequently for their studies. Only a tiny minority want to play any of their sports as a professional. Most of my friends played several sports or none and I can only recall Denis Compton and Ian Botham in sixty years who tried to be professionals in two sports simultaneously.
      You want to wipe out amateur college sport for millions to promote professional college sport for the benefit of dozens?!?
      Get lost or wake up to reality.

  2. Er, Tim, haven’t you heard of Amateur Boxing which is still amateur (albeit a few amateurs turn into pros they are trivial in percentage terms) and involves tens of thousands of working-class lads, with a small sprinkling of aristocrats (Lords Avebury and Moynihan come immediately to mind)?

  3. The NCAA’s infatuation that none of the torrents of revenue flows to the talent that produces the revenue, even surpasses the NCAA’s infatuation that no team nicknames honor American Indians. It proves you don’t have to be in a legislature to have so much time on your hands that you disrupt lives for the sole purpose of value-signaling. The “student-athlete” myth tasks us to decide whether we are really there to see the best performances. How is it that the FBI devotes public resources to help the NCAA crack down on coaches recruiting their players in the classic American way?

  4. This post bears a certain resemblance to a recent post at Coyote Blog. Mind you, it probably also bears a resemblance to many another sports post over the years. There’s not really anything new to say about sport, is there? Except didn’t Scotland wallop England last weekend? Proper rugby in the Six Nations at last.