Tracing The Origins Of College Sports Amateurism

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The "ra-ra spirit" lives on at Rutgers University. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Colleges' devotion to amateur sports can be found in the Rutgers football legend of "Pop" Grant, who allegedly said he'd "die for dear old Rutgers." (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

This story is part of Only A Game's special episode about the past, present and future of the NCAA. Find the full episode here.

So why is the NCAA so committed to amateurism?

Well, for the NCAA, "amateurism" isn’t simply a rule that says players shouldn’t be paid for their athletic talents.

For the NCAA, amateurism is a philosophy. It’s a moral code.

'College Rah-Rah Spirit Of Boys'

Rutgers University changed the opening words to its alma mater in 2013, but until then, this is how it started:

"My father sent me to old Rutgers, and resolved that I should be a man."

And football was considered to be a big part of that education.

Let's start with something that happened in 1892. Or, I should say, "allegedly" happened in 1892.

In a game against Princeton, Rutgers’ best player, Frank "Pop" Grant, broke his leg. And while Grant was being carted off the field, he turned to his teammates and — the legend goes — said, "I’d die for dear old Rutgers."

And that phrase became a thing.

"This was a trope that was trotted out to exemplify this college rah-rah spirit of boys out there just playing for the school, just playing for the alma mater," says Paul Putz, a doctoral student in history at Baylor University. "Even willing to die for the school if that's what it took."

Muscular Christianity And 'Moral Education'

This devotion to amateur sports can be traced back to something called Muscular Christianity. It started in England, during the Industrial Revolution. The idea was that life was getting too easy for the middle and upper classes. Their bodies were getting weak.

"And meanwhile," Putz says, "lots of lower class people are building up strength. They're becoming muscular."

Basically, those in power wanted to make sure they stayed in power.

"So it's very closely tied with class, and with race, and with imperialism in the 19th century," Putz says.

Muscular Christians took their cues from a fictional English school boy named Tom Brown.

"He's really a hero for people like Teddy Roosevelt," Putz says.

Yeah, that Teddy Roosevelt.

So, here’s Roosevelt — he wants to build leaders. And he’s part of a movement that says leaders need to be strong, not just mentally, but also physically. And that’s where football comes in.

And football was only for amateurs.

And, in a way, this answers the biggest question of all:

"Why in the world would we have football be a part of a college?" Putz asks. "What does that have to do with education? Well, if it's an amateur sport and if it's actually forming men in a moral way, providing a moral education, then you can justify it."

For Coaches And Schools, 'The Rules Don't Apply Here'

And something happened in the United States that didn’t happen anywhere else. By the 1890s, college football had become a moneymaker. And it created something that you don’t find anywhere else in the world: this industry of big-time college sports.

But the rule that said the athlete couldn’t make any money — it didn’t apply to the schools or the coaches.

"They're not gonna die for dear old Rutgers," Putz says. "They're going to whatever school gives them the higher price. So the money that supposedly corrupts these young people, when it applies to the schools and the coaches, the rules don't apply here."

Later, schools would say that the purpose behind amateurism was to maintain parity — make it so that rich schools couldn’t buy championships. But originally, this is what it was all about — creating this division between upper class sports played in service of a moral education and lower class sports played for pay.

Amateurism Lives On

Over time, football became more democratic, and teams brought in players who weren’t part of the elite. But every time a school would start to relax or sidestep the rules so that more people could afford to play, the defenders of amateurism would step in.

"And I think a lot of it has to do with feeling that their world — their supremacy — is being encroached upon," Putz says. "Because it's shot through with class-based assumptions, with sort of an opposition to the working-class people, who can't play sports if they aren't getting scholarships."

A lot of things have changed since then, and now sports are seen as a way for kids to get a college education. But the so-called purity of amateurism is still the NCAA’s excuse for limiting player’s compensation and the university’s responsibility.

Check out more from Only A Game's episode on the NCAA here.

This segment aired on October 14, 2017.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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