Miami Vice: College Sports, the Amateur Ideal, and Sports as Religion

by Elesha Coffman

Tales of naughtiness in big-time college sports have become commonplace, but this week’s allegations about long-term and widespread NCAA violations at the University of Miami still managed to shock. According to Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson (who also broke last summer’s story about improper compensation paid to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo at USC), for nearly a decade a Miami booster named Nevin Shapiro used money he made in a Ponzi scheme to curry favor with some 72 Hurricanes players and half a dozen coaches. Shapiro bought booze and high-end gifts, secured the services of prostitutes, threw parties at strip clubs and on his yacht, entertained recruits, paid athletes for big plays and hard hits—all of the now-familiar stuff, albeit on a staggering scale—while university officials took his above-the-table checks and granted him VIP access, even naming a player lounge in his honor.

College sports junkies will revel (or perhaps writhe) in the irony that most of this malfeasance occurred while Paul Dee was Athletic Director, the same Paul Dee who led the USC investigation and defended its stiff penalties by intoning, “high-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance.” Meanwhile, we historians might ponder how the ideal of amateurism became so deeply engrained in college sports that there are such creatures as compliance officers whose job it is to ensure that kids who make their schools millions in TV and NCAA merchandising revenue are not, by golly, treated like professional athletes.

The ideal of amateurism, though entwined with ideas of fair play, was devised less as protection for the integrity of sport than as protection for the privilege of the upper class. The ideal originated in Britain and migrated to the United States through late 19th century urban athletic clubs, the Amateur Athletic Union (established 1888), and elite New England prep schools and colleges. Barring pay for athletic exploits effectively limited participation to persons with means, as members of lower classes needed to spend their time and energy working. It also saved Brahmins the embarrassment of losing to their social inferiors. After Harvard lost a rowing championship to the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1871, and then lost again to upstart Cornell in 1875, it withdrew from the Rowing Association of America and refused to row against any team but Yale for the rest of the century. (This was one of my students’ favorite details from Benjamin Rader’s American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, the text I used for Sports in American History last spring.)

Of course, as soon as rules were devised to separate sports and money, Americans started breaking them. Professional rowers peppered college crews as early as the 1860s, faculty and staff competed alongside students, and “tramp athletes” wandered the Midwest and West playing for whatever college football team offered the highest bid. In another early pay-for-play scheme, from 1878 to 1885 the Manhattan Athletic Club offered membership to Lon Myers, a champion runner whose Jewish ancestry ordinarily would have disqualified him, and paid him for several invented jobs. Even with this source of income, Myers reportedly sold some of his medals. It’s a wonder Ohio State didn’t recruit him.

Issues of class, and related issues of race and ethnicity, often arise in discussions of athletic amateurism. The religious aspects of the topic are less overt but still intriguing. Organized amateur sports, and organized youth sports, overlapped considerably with muscular Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back when the “C” in YMCA still meant something, figures such as Luther Halsey Gulick, Jr., avidly promoted sport as a cornerstone of moral and spiritual development. Over at the Groton School, Endicott Peabody incorporated sports and cold showers with daily chapel and Bible reading to improve the characters of his previously overindulged students. Amateurism can be viewed as an institutionalization of Christian, even Puritan, values and expectations. The paragon of the student-athlete is not so very far removed from Richard Baxter’s admonition that “lawful sport” must make people fitter for their primary callings, not become an end in itself or “delight a carnal fantasy.”

Then again, it is possible to view athletic amateurism as a replacement for religion, an alternate means of building character and promoting social harmony. When Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics, he drew on Greek rather than Christian ideals; the “Olympic Hymn” first performed in 1896 invokes the “Immortal spirit of antiquity / Father of the true, beautiful and good.” Rec leagues and swim lessons long ago displaced religious instruction at the local Y. And I had to nod when I read ESPN travel writer aver, regarding my graduate alma mater, “The school's signature building is the stunning Duke Chapel with gothic spires that pierce the heart of the campus in Durham, N.C. But the campus’ soul resides inside its 71-year-old basketball cathedral.”

Sports commentators are already calling the NCAA investigation of Miami a test of the organization’s power, of the university’s administration, and of the amateur ideal. If the allegations are proven and the NCAA does not hand down a stiff sentence—even, at the edge of possibility, its little-used “death penalty”—the already embattled notion of collegiate amateurism would seem to be destroyed. Were amateurism still a means of maintaining class boundaries, Americans might be glad to see it go, but the visceral reaction to Robinson’s exposé demonstrates that deeper concerns are in play. “The U” will not have many fans after this.


Anonymous said…
Great post, Elesha. The amateur part of the NCAA has become a farce in certain high-profile sports. The hammer's going to drop on Auburn soon, too.

For those who are more amused than shocked by the U's misdeeds, be sure to check out Luther Campbell's defense of the school (with friends like these...) and this hilarious "review" of Miami's "magnum opus."