Amateurism is A Lie Agreed Upon

History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.
-Napolean Bonaparte

On Saturday, November 6, 1869, 25 students from what was then called the College of New Jersey in the town of Princeton made the 20 mile trip from their campus to New Brunswick. There they were hosted by 25 students from Rutgers College. In front of approximately 100 spectators, and using a set of rules that would be largely unrecognizable to modern audiences, the two groups played what the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recognizes as the first college football game. After the home team won by a score of six to four, the visitors were reportedly literally run out of town.

Although those young men could not have known it at the time, this game they played for fun on a weekend between classes was the first step in what would eventually become the multi-billion dollar industry known as college sports.

On February 20, 2019 a new chapter in one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports took place. The top-ranked Duke University Blue Devils basketball team hosted their arch-rivals, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, who were ranked number eight. There is an intensity anytime these two programs play one another. Both schools rank in the top five all-time in both wins and championships for Division 1 men’s basketball. The two schools have also combined to win one-third of all the Division 1 championships this century. Only 10 coaches in this division have ever won 800 games; UNC is the only program that can claim more than one person on that list (current coach Roy Williams has the seventh most wins of all time while his mentor Dean Smith is fifth). The Blue Devils’ counter is that their current coach, Mike Krzyzewski, ranks number one.

College basketball is a big deal in the state of North Carolina.

But even by those measures, this specific game stood out. The chief attraction in this latest iteration of the rivalry was Duke freshman Zion Williamson. Before he had even made a decision on where he would play college basketball, Williamson had become an internet sensation thanks to YouTube highlights of his high school games, which showed a player who possessed a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism.

Such highlights did not stop when he got to college. But in addition to wowing crowds, Williamson has also displayed an ability to dominate against the best talent that college basketball has to offer. After playing just a handful of games, he was being discussed as the presumptive number one pick in the 2019 NBA draft. It was because of Zion Williamson that one of the most famous people in the world chose to watch the Duke-UNC game in person and ticket prices to a regular season college basketball game were on par with the most expensive sporting event in the United States.

Thirty three seconds into the game, Williamson slipped. His foot actually tore through his shoe and he suffered an apparent injury to his knee. He did not return.

The discussion over this injury overshadowed the eventual outcome of the game (UNC won, 88–72). Debates among sports pundits revolved around whether or not Williamson should shut down his play for the rest of the college basketball season to preserve his status as the top prospect for the NBA draft. Central to this argument is the reality that he does not get paid to play in college and a serious injury could harm his ability to earn money as a professional athlete.

The two-part second season premiere of the HBO series Deadwood is titled “A Lie Agreed Upon.” That name is derived from a quote attributed to Napoleon and in many ways serves as the overarching theme of the show. The real life town of Deadwood was formed in the late 19th century when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As prospectors moved to the area to seek their fortune, others followed them to provide the tools and services that are necessary for any permanent or semi-permanent gathering of people. Showrunner David Milch created the series Deadwood as a way to use the town’s history to explore how a civilization comes together.

“A Lie Agreed Upon” is perhaps the purest distillation of this theme. The key scene features Seth Bullock (Deadwood’s reluctant sheriff) and Al Swearengen (the town’s most influential businessman), two men who have viewed each other askance from the moment they met, allowing their mutual mistrust and veiled threats to finally boil over into a physical confrontation. The fight begins in Swearengen’s office before eventually continuing in the muddy thoroughfare just outside. It ends right before Swearengen is about to kill Bullock when they both look up and see Bullock’s wife and son, having just arrived in town, watching in horror. Swearengen’s greeting to them: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood! It can be combative.”

The symbolic message: the creation of a society is a lot dirtier, a lot messier and a lot uglier than our sanitized view of history would have us believe.

Zion Williamson, like all college athletes, is forbidden by the NCAA from profiting off of his athletic prowess. By rule, Duke is not allowed to give him any financial benefits that exceed the cost of attending the university. He is not permitted to make money via endorsements. If he was found to have accepted money for signing an autograph, both he and the Duke basketball program would be punished. These rules are in place because the NCAA adheres to a standard of amateurism for its sports. But what is amateurism? And what does it have to do with an 18-year old playing basketball for the college he attends?

As it is understood today the concept of amateurism applies, if not exclusively then certainly primarily, to sports. It is a way to make a distinction between people who compete athletically for personal profit (professionals) and those who compete for some other, ostensibly nobler, cause (amateurs). The problem with that distinction is that it is flawed, and has been since it was introduced.

Sports amateurism was invented in England during the Victorian Era. Athletic competition in team sports such as cricket, rugby and rowing had taken on cultural importance (largely due to a philosophical movement known as Muscular Christianity) and aristocratic men found themselves being routinely beaten by working-class opponents. As a way to gain an advantage, the aristocrats developed rules stating that everyone playing in the games should do so sans monetary compensation. Unlike those in the working class, the wealthy members of society were not dependent on any income from such competition and could afford to practice and play for free. These new rules allowed them to start winning.

When American colleges and universities began competing against one another athletically, they imported the British idea of amateurism. This became codified in 1905 with the establishment of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), which changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association five years later.

Amateurism was further entrenched as the status quo of college sports with the 1951 appointment of Walter Byers as the executive director of the NCAA. More so that any other individual, Byers is responsible for shaping the college sports atmosphere that exists today. He saw the potential television held as a medium that could air live events, and first negotiated the contracts that eventually became worth billions of dollars to both the schools and the networks. He expanded the NCAA tournament, helping turn it into one of the premier sporting events in the United States. It was also Walter Byers who coined the term “student-athlete,” which was done as a way to avoid paying compensation to athletes who were injured due to playing football for their schools.

A particularly noteworthy aspect of amateurism is its elastic nature when it applies to college sports. While the NCAA offers a way for “student-athletes” to see if they meet the criteria for amateur status as well as a list of things that violate that status, the organization is much less clear when it comes to an established definition of what “amateurism” actually means. This may or may not be intentional but, either way, it plays into the reality that the NCAA can change how it defines amateurism, as it has done over time. For example, as Michigan State law professors emeritus Robert A. McCormick and Amy C. McCormick point out in their 2006 paper The Myth of the Student-Athlete: The College Athlete as Employee, in its earliest days the NCAA forbid scholarships based on athletics. Such an idea is completely foreign to the college sports environment that exists today. So while the NCAA insists that amateurism is a crucial component of its existence the reality is that, as sports journalist Patrick Hruby often points out, amateurism is whatever the NCAA says it is.

This acknowledgment is more than just a mere curiosity. It highlights the hypocritical nature of college sports. While the athletes are required to adhere to whatever the current version of “amateur” is, they are the only party in the entire ecosystem under such restrictions. If you coach a college sport, there are no limits on how much money you can make; like most Americans, there is nothing impeding you from taking full advantage of the free market. Indeed, as of 2017 in all but 11 states the highest paid state employee is the football or basketball coach of a public university. The dichotomy that exists between playing and coaching college sports is enough to view any insistence on amateurism with a skeptical eye. But it doesn’t stop there. The coaching industry is not the only one that profits handsomely from college athletics:

In other words, millions of dollars are regularly in play if you are in the business of coaching, administering, broadcasting or clothing the amateur endeavor of college sports. The only people held to the standard of amateurism are the athletes, whose labor on the field or court is what makes all these other opportunities possible.

The NCAA has long insisted that amateurism is a necessary component of an endeavor that is tied to education. Although recently removed from its website, used to display the following message (emphasis added):

Amateur competition is a bedrock principle of college athletics and the NCAA. Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.
The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality educational experience and that all of student-athletes are competing equitably.

However, much like how the concept is selectively enforced with regards to the participants of college sports, the importance of amateurism as a part of the educational experience only seems to apply to one specific group. Most college students are not athletes. Further, while some argue that scholarships are equitable compensation for athletes, the majority of scholarship recipients on college campuses are also not athletes. Yet it is only athletes that are held to an arrangement that prevents them from getting additional income. Students who receive scholarships due to their talents as musicians or artists or computer programmers are free to use those skills to make additional money without jeopardizing their scholarship or status. It should also be pointed out that amateurism rules apply to athletes even if they do not have a scholarship.

Given the lack of a logical basis for the ongoing use of amateurism in college sports, it is important to examine why it remains the entrenched state of affairs. Like many things in American society, the root cause is tied to the United States’ complicated relationship with race. A 2017 poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov found a sharp divide between Black and White Americans on the issue. While a majority of Black Americans (52%) felt that athletes should be paid, less than a third of White Americans (27%) agreed. That same year, a study published by the University of Utah found that having negative views of African Americans was the strongest predictor of opposition to paying college athletes.

This research takes on increased importance with a granular examination of the demographics of college sports. Nearly two-thirds of all college athletes are White. But those numbers change significantly when looking specifically at football and men’s basketball. The following graphs are courtesy of the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database.

Race and gender breakdown of all NCAA athletes
Race breakdown of men’s basketball and football

Financially, football and men’s basketball are the most important sports to college athletic departments because they are the only two that consistently generate revenue. The income produced by these two sports is very often solely responsible for funding the budget of a university’s entire athletic department. It is noteworthy that while Black students count for only 11% of all college athletes, these numbers jump to 45% and 39% when focusing on just the revenue-generating sports of men’s basketball and football, respectively. These differences are even more pronounced when focusing on the Power 5 conferences, where Black students account for 54% of the players on the men’s basketball teams and a 47% plurality of those on football teams.

Race breakdown of men’s basketball and football in the Power 5 conferences

In addition to the aforementioned deal with ESPN for the College Football Playoff, the NCAA also has an $8.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner to broadcast the NCAA Tournament. In 2017, the NCAA reported revenue of over $1 billion. In an industry that generates billions of dollars annually and creates opportunities for coaches and athletic directors to become millionaires, the largely Black labor force that is the primary engine of that economic movement is systemically forbidden from having access to that revenue. It is a situation that echoes an all too familiar refrain of American history.

This observation has been made by Victoria L. Jackson. A former scholarship athlete on the track team at the University of North Carolina, Jackson is now a sports historian and lecturer in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. In a 2018 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Jackson connected modern day college athletics, which she readily acknowledges benefited her, to an aspect of the United States’ past:

Let’s be real. In big-time college sports, majority-black teams entertain majority-white crowds. Mostly white head coaches make millions, and the mostly black players don’t make any money beyond their scholarships. These students have little time for academics and therefore don’t graduate at the same rates as the general student body or the nonrevenue athlete peers.
This college sports system contributes to the undervaluing of black lives in American society and our institutions. The predominantly white privilege of playing college sports while earning a quality degree comes at the expense of — is literally paid for by — the educationally unequal experiences of mostly black football and basketball players.
Let’s call this system what it is: 21st century Jim Crow.

Amateurism is a remnant from a previous era and most sports fans don’t even think to challenge it because it is just what they are accustomed to being the norm. But as Deadwood showed, an ugliness often undergirds how things come to be. As much as the NCAA treats amateurism as sacred to its existence, the capricious and selective manner with which it is applied belies the notion that it is a necessary ingredient to the survival of college sports. And today, that existence is built upon a bedrock of racial animus toward the population that makes the entire system possible. Even Walter Byers, the chief architect behind the biggest moves to entrench collegiate amateurism, came to regret the exploitative nature of the organization he had led, referring to it as a “neo-plantation.”

There is nothing inherently virtuous or noble about college amateurism. It is simply a lie that people have agreed upon.