The Olympics Show Why College Sports Should Give Up on Amateurism

The Games started allowing professional athletes to compete decades ago, and everyone is better off. It's time for the NCAA to do the same.

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Things were falling apart. The system would not hold. For decades, it had clung to the amateur ideal, enforced by a watchful governing body: Athletes could not receive material gain, directly or indirectly, for playing sports.

Only the cash came anyway, in drips and drabs and great big gushers, mostly under the table, the public's insatiable demand for spectacle rushing to meet a limited supply of talented performers. Some decried the resulting corruption and hypocrisy; others lambasted the unfairness of it all. Prominent voices demanded wholesale change. Still, amateurism's defenders held fast, with one telling Sports Illustrated that "if we water down the rules now, the [sport] will be destroyed within eight years."

The above does not describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association and contemporary big-time college sports.

The year was 1960. The subject was the Olympics. Once upon a time, the Games were an amateur affair, as committed to no-pay-for-play—no salaries, no endorsements—as today's NCAA. Of course, that was before former International Olympic Committee head Juan Antonio Samaranch pushed for the inclusion of professional athletes. And before basketball's 1992 Dream Team. And before a bevy of pros in everything from track and field to table tennis—in short, the world's best—flooded the Games.

Yet on the way to a grubby Gomorra of unfettered sports commerce, a funny thing happened: The watered-down Olympics didn't exactly sink to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

"Dead in eight years?" said Olympic historian Bill Mallon, who has written dozens of books about the Games, in a recent interview. "If anything, the Olympics are more popular and powerful than ever. It has been decades since they opened up the Games to the professionals, and they're still going strong."

Over the next two weeks in London, LeBron James will lead USA Basketball's star-studded squad of multimillionaire NBA players. Tennis pros Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will play for gold on the grounds of Wimbledon. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will take a break from filming fast-food sandwich and electrolyte-laden sports drink commercials to swim and run at inhuman speeds.

Meanwhile, fans won't raise a peep. They'll be too busy enjoying the multibillion-dollar show—a show that ought to serve as an object lesson for college sports.

"My point of view is that there is absolutely nothing wrong, unethical, or immoral about people making a living by playing sports," said Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven who has written extensively on college sports ethics and economics. "The Olympics realized that. Even the NCAA realizes that. I interviewed [former NCAA president]Myles Brand for a book, and he said that notion of amateurism has outlived its usefulness. It doesn't fit in the 21st century. It didn't even fit in the 20th century."

Indeed, when it comes to the NCAA's embrace of amateurism—otherwise known as restraint of trade, set to the Chariots of Fire soundtrack—the Olympics provide a compelling case study in why and how college sports should and could change.

Worshipping a false ideal

The first problem with amateurism is that there's no such thing—or at the very least, no agreed-upon working definition of the concept. Ohio State doesn't allow amateur football players to receive free tattoos, but does lavish them with tuition, books, room and board. Meanwhile, the Ivy League frowns on athletic scholarships.

The Olympics had possibly the most stringent definition of amateurism. According to 1960 Olympic rules, athletes who simply had decided to turn pro—that is, committed the thought crime of choosing to receive compensation for their sports performances at an indeterminate point in the future—were cast out of the amateur temple. As former IOC head Avery Brundage told Sports Illustrated at the time, "[amateurism] is a thing of the spirit, and hence is very difficult to define."

Note: this is a polite way of saying that the idea is hogwash.

The modern Olympics claimed they embraced amateurism as a way of embracing classical antiquity. The only catch? The ancient Greeks valued athletic vows of poverty about as much as modern Greece values federal tax collection. As Dr. Neil Faulkner, a British historian and author of A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics puts it:

[Ancient Olympic] champions invariably became very rich men. They may have left Olympia with only an olive crown, but they could expect ample reward for their efforts at home, and they could earn generous prizes thereafter by appearing at any of some hundreds of local sports festivals.

In reality, amateurism in both the Olympics and college sports comes from the same place: Victorian England. Specifically, snooty British elites who enjoyed rowing, winning, and keeping the unwashed, day-laboring masses at arm's length. "Amateurism really started when the people who were rowing boats on the Thames for a living started beating all the rich British aristocrats," Mallon said. "That wasn't right. So they started a concept of amateurism that didn't exist in ancient Greece, extending it more and more to the notion of being a gentleman, someone who didn't work for a living and only did sport as a hobby."

The English notion of amateurism was copied by Harvard, Yale, and other American schools, which also gave birth to college sports. According to Sports Illustrated, the system had less to do with high-minded ideas about education than about enforcing a social caste system:

both in America and in England a gentleman might hire an ex-prizefighter, a golf trainer or a tennis teacher to coach his son and might even brush up his own game in a round with the professional. But when it was over, the pro left by the service entrance and the gentleman went in to tea.

Prohibition doesn't work

The father of former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton allegedly solicits $180,000 from a second school in exchange for his son's Heisman Trophy-winning services. Five other former Auburn players claim that they were given sexual favors and cash while being recruited by and playing for the school, including post-game "money handshakes" from friends of the program. Are these things wrong? Somehow different than the signing and performance bonuses handed out in, say, investment banking? Or are they simply against NCAA rules? By holding onto amateurism and pretending a vibrant, competitive market for collegiate athletic talent doesn't exist, the NCAA has simply pushed the campus sports economy underground; as was the case with Prohibition, the result is a crime and corruption problem that otherwise wouldn't exist.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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