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Dave Revsine on collegiate "amateurism" in the Wall Street Journal

M Man's picture
August 11, 2014 at 11:54pm

I very much like Dave Revsine and his work for the Big Ten Network.  But he seems awfully sanguine about the future of collegiate sports amateurism.  No matter how we might disagree, this was some highly enjoyable writing (as well as a reminder that his new book The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation is now on sale):

While some fear these two decisions will corrupt college athletics' amateur model, the truth is that amateurism has been a moving target since schools started competing on the gridiron. In the 19th century, professional athletics was looked down upon as the domain of those who lacked the wealth and leisure time to participate in sport for sport's sake. But that didn't stop universities from compensating athletes under the table, in direct opposition to the rules of the day. Players routinely sold themselves to the highest bidder to spend a Saturday competing for a school, with a writer of the time noting: "There is a scale of prices, just as there is for horses and cows and grain."

At the time the football program at Chicago had an enormous financial advantage over rivals in the Western Conference, precursor of the modern Big Ten. Chicago Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg used that edge to dictate where the Maroons would play, and he refused to share receipts equally with competitors. His heavy-handedness nearly led to the league's dissolution, a dispute mirrored more than a century later when Texas refused to share television revenue and threatened the viability of the Big 12.

How did college football survive these challenges? It's simple. Much as they do today, people loved the spectacle and the collective sense of belonging that the game engendered. Grandstands overflowed for the biggest games, with school spirit whipping campuses into a frenzy and the media covering it all—creating new superstars along the way. The New York Sun sent 17 reporters to the 1893 Yale-Princeton game, which drew 50,000 fans and created a festival-like atmosphere in New York City.

Football's place on the American campus was perhaps best captured by an early Chicago professor, who said the school had two purposes: "to spread the light of knowledge over the western world and to lick Michigan." It's a mission that would ring true in Columbus, Ohio, today. The scope of the sport has obviously changed. But college football's current popularity and problems are the logical extension of those in 1890s and early 1900s.


Buckeyeneer's picture

Thanks for the share.

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes

THE Ohio State University

+3 HS
Go1Bucks's picture

+1 for you. +1 for the topic point.

Go Bucks!

whiskeyjuice's picture

 Upvote to you good sir.

"Championships are not won on Saturdays in November. Championships are won on Tuesdays in August." -- Kerry Combs

buckeyedude's picture


"to spread the light of knowledge over the western world and to lick Michigan."

It's funny to see how the vernacular has changed.



BUCKSOMIES's picture

Thanks M Man, good reading. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

M Man, thanks for sharing this.

As you imply, Revsine's sanguine attitude toward college sports amateurism is rational given history. I'm guessing that you and I probably share similar concerns about the directions of things, but we ought not concern ourselves with preserving something that was always a contrivance to begin with - this so-called "amateurism." Although I don't agree with them, some historians might even fit this construct of the old amateur ideal within a socioeconomic analysis of class interests, labor exploitation, etc. - and before long they start prattling on about "hegemony" and whatnot. We don't have to agree with such conclusions, though, to appreciate the flimsiness of the Victorian amateurism.

And once we've set it aside, we can talk more clearly about what truly matters in college athletics - what's special about it that must be preserved.

+1 HS