This shunting of sports to the side of “real life” has numerous implications, most of which reinforce the cultural status quo in American society. It has led to the characterization of sporting events as a kind of social safety valve through which fans can vent their frustrations in a supposedly contained and harmless manner. Such compartmentalization has also denigrated professional sports as work that is not to be taken seriously by respectable citizens. The integration of this idea into American media over the past century and a half has created tremendous financial and political benefits for the nation’s sports industries and their ancillary businesses, while diminishing the moral and political credibility of celebrity athletes and the fans who support them.
Professionalization of sports mostly began in the U.S. after the Civil War. As sports expanded from a leisure activity into its own industry, its growth was hampered by Americans’ traditional suspicions of corruption in entertainment businesses. An 1877 gambling scandal in baseball’s brand-new National League affirmed these public anxieties. In response, teams gradually developed new marketing strategies to justify the civic benefits of their businesses. Local newspapers partnered with their city’s teams to promote the democratizing potential of professional sports: the benefits of what historians Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills have described as “a very good cross section of the American population” intermingling in the stands.
This message doesn’t appear to have resonated with readers, because soon the press progressed to an argument that focused on sports’ value as an instrument for relieving the frustrations of its spectators. (By 1887, for instance, The New York Times was presenting the concept of baseball as a release for the social pressures of industrial society.) As the reporter H. Addington Bruce later put it in his 1913 article “Baseball and the National Life” for The Outlook:
Baseball, then, from the spectator’s standpoint, is to be regarded as a means of catharsis … a harmless outlet for pent-up emotions, which unless thus gaining expression, might discharge themselves in a dangerous way.
From this perspective, the game became less a means of integrating people into corporate America than a venue for escaping from it.
This message aligned with the interests of the nation’s elite families and educational institutions, which were simultaneously promoting the importance of a culture of amateurism that divorced sports from business. Professional athletics became taboo in these communities. In 1893, Walter Camp, a Yale graduate and the nation’s leading popularizer of football, warned:
A gentleman never competes for money, directly or indirectly. Make no mistake about this. No matter how winding the road may be that eventually brings the sovereign into the pocket, it is the price of what should be dearer to you than anything else—your honor.
Promoting sports as distinct from—and even as an antidote to—work benefitted owners of professional sports teams in a variety of ways. It freed them to exploit their employees on the basis of disreputability; since most Americans did not consider playing games real work, those who chose to earn a living in that way were widely viewed as inherently unworthy. In 1879, the National League introduced the reserve clause, which allowed teams to retain their rights to a player even after his contract expired, unilaterally terminate his contract, or assign him to another team without his consent. The League justified this unprecedented degree of control over its labor force as a way to protect the game from the dissolute habits of its players.