The players see what is going on. They see the full stands. They see the TV cameras, the souvenirs, the cash registers. They sense that something unjust is going on. I certainly did. I remember running into Ohio Stadium with my Northwestern teammates to a deafening boo from 88,000 Ohio State fans and thinking that college football is so much bigger than the simple extracurricular activity people told me it was. If my teammates and I were only amateurs, why was this game such a big deal to so many paying adults?
With cash so much a part of the sport, why aren't players entitled to a share? Indeed, why can't we pay athletes? I mean, why? If a bowl game brings in $2 million to an athletic department, why can't the department give each of the top 40 players, say, two grand as soon as the game check clears, and the 50 or so scrubs $1,500 apiece? What would be wrong with that? Hell, reporters on student newspapers earn cold cash for their work—as much as $500 a month at the University of Washington's Daily, for instance. Are they more professional than athletes?
Amateurism as an ideal is peculiar to sports, and that should tell us something about its validity right there. (Sport has long been overloaded with almost as much myth, hyperbole, fabrication and psychological baggage as war.) If you asked a neighborhood kid to come to your house and rake your leaves, would you have the gall at the end of the day to say, "Thanks a lot, kid. Hope the raking was a good experience for you. I'd love to pay you, but you're an amateur"? Does anyone think that money corrupts a child leaf-raker? On the contrary, the kid would be praised for his drive. Why can't sports be seen in the same light?
We are fascinated with the Olympic ideal (which has now been discarded by the Olympics themselves) that sports should be performed by amateur athletes for the sheer love of the game, and we still believe this is the way sports should be played on college campuses. But this rationale is riddled with holes. To begin with, the ancient Olympics had nothing to do with amateurism. "Ancient amateurism is a myth," says classicist David Young in his book, The Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics. And Andrew Strenk, the official historian of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, who has taught Olympic history at USC, says, "The whole concept of amateurism would have been incomprehensible to ancient Greeks. You had to be a professional to compete in the Olympics, which meant that you had to prove you were a full-time athlete and that you had been doing nothing but training for three months prior to the Games."
So where did the glorification of Olympic amateurism come from? Largely from Victorian England, which adopted the concept to keep the lower classes from mingling with the blue bloods on the field of play. In the 1870s the aristocratic British Amateur Rowing Association separated itself from the dirty-fingernail crowd by passing a rule stating that no person is an amateur "who is or ever has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan, or laborer, or engaged in any menial duty." In other words, almost anyone who has ever had to work for a living. Since the adoption of that rowing law, writes historian Ronald Smith in Sports & Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics, "nearly every definition of an amateur in sports has been a negative one." Smith later adds, "Amateurism is not really a moral issue about getting paid or not paid for athletic competition, but is a distinction by class. There is simply no evidence that an amateur is more virtuous than a professional. In fact, the reverse may be true, for the amateur at the upper levels of competition often received financial advantage for participation in amateur sport—certainly a hypocritical situation. This has been the situation in college sport since the 1880s."
Money and its corrupting influence—corrupting to people who believe in amateurism, that is—were there from the get-go in college sports. The first intercollegiate competition in the U.S., a crew race between Harvard and Yale on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, was funded by the Boston, Concord & Montreal railroad company, which saw the event as a commercial venture. The railroad gave Harvard, which won the race, an expensive set of matched black walnut oars. In the late 1800s college track runners were routinely awarded cash prizes, and college rowing teams competed in regattas for $500 and even for sterling silver goblets worth, according to journals of the time, double what an average laborer might earn in a year.
Other aspects of commercialism and professionalism were also a part of intercollegiate sports from the start: "tramp" athletes, sham students, boosters, etc. So why did our colleges adopt an indefensible system like amateurism? The answer has mostly to do with the social and philosophical climate in American society and American universities, which have usually attempted to emulate their English counterparts. The first U.S. colleges were, almost without exception, schools with religious affiliations, intolerant of pleasures of the flesh, including athletics. Unsanctioned sports were the students' greatest and least destructive escape valve, and from the Revolutionary War until late in the 19th century students ran their competitions pretty much without the assistance or blessing of their universities.
School administrations got involved when they saw what a big deal college sports were becoming, and when they realized how much money sports could generate. Yale, perhaps the first big-time athletic power, never seriously considered faculty control of athletics until it discovered in 1905 that its student-run athletic department had a $100,000 reserve fund (about $2 million in today's money) and an annual income equal to one-eighth of the university's.
Once they took over these renegade athletic programs, university officials went heavy on the Olympic notion because they could see that revenue-producing sports had no place in the collegiate world and therefore needed justification. The concept of amateurism provided this justification, and it still does. The whole thing is a charade. Last fall I sat in the Florida State weight room with Sanders, the Seminoles' All-America cornerback, and I asked him if he wanted to be in college. "No," he said. "But I have to be."
So what was Sanders doing at Florida State? At best he was a reluctant student—it would come out later that he barely attended class during his senior year. Further, his presence on campus indicated to everyone—real students, fans and critics alike—the extremes to which a university would go to produce a winning football team.