When college athletics abandons the spirit of play for the reality of pay.
Until recent times in Western civilization, athletic contests had always been of a non-professional nature. To be sure, in the ancient world, athletic victors were generously rewarded for their achievements, but their chief reward was the glory of victory and, most importantly, the sheer, spontaneous joy of the performance itself.
Professional sports, as we know them today, emerged in England in the late 18th century—primarily in boxing, cricket, and horse racing. Yet with this turn toward professionalism, there followed a revival of amateurism, especially under the influence of so-called “muscular Christianity” in the 1840s, a movement which regarded professional competition as antithetical to the moral purity of the sporting ideal it promoted. The creed of amateurism that emerged out of that milieu became one of the chief influences in the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in America in 1906.
Among its chief concerns at that time was what sports historian Rodney K. Smith termed the creeping “commercialization of collegiate sports.” Thus amateurism, and particularly the unpaid status of the student athlete, became a cornerstone of the NCAA’s mission.
While the NCAA, at least in its public pronouncements, continues to promote the amateur ideal, that ideal is now rapidly eroding. Among the reasons for this erosion we must include the corruption of the NCAA itself, which has long resembled a corporate monopoly; the impact of California’s “Fair Pay to Play” Act, passed in 2019; the SCOTUS decision in NCAA v. Alston (2021); and the widespread and apparent indifference of the sports media and the millions of college football fans toward what promises to be a radical turn toward professionalism in collegiate sports.
All of this is occurring within the broader context of modernity’s loss of understanding about the crucial importance and value of “play” in the formation of civilized society. The key text in the debate over this loss of understanding remains Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s 1945 classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. According to Huizinga,
play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is different from ‘ordinary life.’
Always and everywhere, true play lifts the players (and spectators) out of the ordinary round of “serious” life and into a quasi-transcendent realm in which no extrinsic end is served—no social or political or practical end—other than the act of play “in itself.” Huizinga insists that while culture is not directly a product of play, play nonetheless is more primordial and is always a crucial element in the development of culture.
The element of play is present in many human activities: in games and athletic contests, of course, as well as in the arts. As Huizinga notes, language, too, must pay homage to play, for language—in the generation of metaphor and symbol, for example—is in its essence, as every poet knows, a playful activity. Even more important in its relationship to the development of culture is the deep play at work in myth and ritual, where “the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.”
Moreover, there are certain characteristics of play that are universal in all of its forms: it is never a task; it is disinterested; and it is everywhere marked by rhythm and harmony. (Even something as cerebral as a game of chess has, properly understood, its own rhythm and harmony.) As the use of the term “play” in English suggests, there is additionally an indispensable element of illusion in all forms of play. Play is, then, the antithesis of “the real.” Yet, paradoxically, that which seeks, puritanically, to deny us the freedom to play, betrays that greater reality which is the lifeblood of civilization.
If our sense of play in the modern era has been muted, even degraded, it may be deeply related to the rise of an industrial, hyper-rational culture beginning in the early 19th century. As the ties to rural life (so productive of the childlike sense of play) were gradually severed, the tyranny of the practical began to extend its sway. Alongside this dismal development, massive numbers of northern Europeans, congregating in their urban and suburban enclaves, lacked opportunities for organized or regular physical activity designed to strengthen the body. In response, a swelling chorus of voices—politicians, journalists, churchmen—began to decry the decline of manliness.
This concern was particularly strong in Great Britain, where by the 1840s sports clubs, including boxing clubs, began to spring up among the working classes, often organized by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which was itself a spin-off of the movement for “muscular Christianity.” The movement gained even greater prominence under the enormous influence of writer Thomas Hughes, whose best-selling novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) and its sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), encouraged a revival of athletics, not only at the great universities but in the “public” schools, as well. Among these, Rugby School was foremost in developing the demanding creed of amateur sports that would eventually cross the Atlantic. In the vision of Hughes and other advocates of “muscular Christianity” like Charles Kingsley, physical manliness would be wedded to Christian chivalry, bringing the body under subjection while serving the needs of the weak and defenseless.
Among those prominent Americans who embraced this sporting creed was Teddy Roosevelt, who argued in an 1899 letter to the famed psychologist and educator Granville Stanley Hall that “Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, the civilized ones will be of little avail.”
Roosevelt was a supporter of the NCAA at its founding, in part because of the high rate of serious football injuries in the Ivy League competitions, though his concern had less to do with the violence than with the “unsportsmanlike” conduct leading to these injuries. Among other goals, the NCAA was embraced as a regulatory body for collegiate-level sports, but from the beginning it sought to preserve the amateur ideal.
In the view of the NCAA’s organizers, the educational aims of colleges were primary and should not be diluted by professionalism. Some have argued, then and now, that amateurism was an elitist, class-based ideal carried over from the English public schools, and therefore incompatible with American democracy. And while it is true that collegiate amateurism in the U.S. first gained a foothold at the Ivies, as already noted amateur sports in England had flourished among the working and middle classes, and that continued to be true in the United States, again under the influence of the YMCA. Moreover, the NCAA spread rapidly into state universities, where most of the players were of middle-class or, occasionally, working-class origins, and beyond that into private institutions like Notre Dame, with its cohort of second-generation Irish immigrants.
During its early decades, the NCAA was not always powerful enough to enforce its strictures against paying student players, and sometimes they did receive monetary compensation, usually funneled through affluent alumni. But by the 1950s virtually all college sports were tied to the NCAA, which maintained leagues and divisions and, for the first time, allowed “student-athlete” scholarships to be disbursed by member institutions, though such compensation had to be tied to passing-level grade point averages.
As the NCAA consolidated its control of collegiate sports, more and more athletic programs sought membership, since entrance into leagues and participation in championships, bowl games, or playoffs was possible only by association with the NCAA. Today, NCAA membership includes more than 1,100 schools in the U.S. and Canada, and college sports generate billions of dollars in revenue. Since 1984, member colleges have been free to negotiate their own contracts for broadcasting rights, and in 2019 the combined revenue generated by NCAA athletic departments from television deals, sponsorships, and ticket sales amounted to $18.9 billion. In that same year the NCAA itself took in $1.12 billion, much of which was reaped from “March Madness” profits, though typically a large portion of the NCAA’s revenue is distributed back to member schools.
In short, collegiate athletics has become big business—very big—though the lion’s share of the profits belongs to the top tier competitors in Division 1 football and basketball, where coaches are paid enormous sums. In 2023, coaches in the so-called Power Five football conferences making an average of $6.2 million a year, according to USA Today, and some of the highest paid are raking in well over $10 million. Yet, until recently, student athletes have received only basic scholarship and cost-of-living packages, being forbidden to profit in any way that might call into question their amateur status. The NCAA has zealously defended its bylaws governing amateurism, but over the years its control over athlete compensation has been characterized as a monopoly.
Depending on your point of view, this is not an unwarranted take. After all, without the student athletes none of these astonishing profits would be possible, and if you view collegiate athletics from a purely economic perspective, then the athletes have been conspicuously exploited. That, in any case, has been the view of the courts and state legislators.
In response to these concerns, California passed its so-called “Fair Pay to Play” act in 2019 and it became effective in January 2023. The act allows athletes to profit from licensing their names, images, and likenesses (NIL) without compromising their “amateur” status, meaning that the act overrides any move the NCAA might make against student-athletes who choose to benefit by the legislation or against the athletic programs which choose to endorse the practice. As of November 2023, 32 states have followed California’s example. Prior to this flurry of legislation, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015) that under the guidelines of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, at least some of the NCAA’s restrictions on athlete compensation were “unreasonable.”
While O’Bannon did not open the door as widely as did “Fair Pay to Play” did, it ruled that colleges can and should expand scholarship stipends and “full cost of attendance allowances,” effectively allowing unlimited compensation upon condition that it is “tethered” to some educational benefit, though such benefits would, in theory, still be tied to academic performance. Later, in NCAA v. Alston (2021), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that the 9th Circuit had correctly claimed that at least some of the NCAA restrictions were anti-trust violations—or, to use the language of the courts—the NCAA’s control over how much student-athletes might be compensated in their role as students was excessive and served no “procompetitive” purpose.
On the other hand, as Justice Neil Gorsuch noted, “rules designed to ensure that student-athletes do not receive unlimited payments unrelated to education play some role in product differentiation with professional sports and thus help sustain consumer demand for college athletics.” Of course, this recognition was effectively negated by the “Fair Pay to Play” act when it took effect last January.
Note that the use of such terms as “consumer demand” and “product differentiation” in this context say a great deal about how deeply entrenched in the capitalist marketplace collegiate athletics has become. The NCAA repeatedly has asserted over the years that the amateur status of collegiate athletes is a primary draw for the fans who either buy game tickets or regularly consume college sports on television. This may be true for some, especially older fans, but a majority of “informed fans” approve of “Fair Pay for Play” laws, according to more than one poll (55 percent, according to one conducted by the reputation strategy firm Purple Strategies), which hardly suggests that collegiate amateurism is an overriding concern. But that, in itself, is perhaps a reflection of how deeply even devoted fans have been affected by the creeping commercialization of college sports.
More likely is that consumer demand has as much or more to do with “brand loyalty”—meaning that fans are drawn to teams that represent their own undergraduate alma maters, or to teams that compete in their own regions. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that most fans have little understanding of the history of amateurism or why it might be a sporting creed worth preserving. Those who do attend games seem to be thrilled with being a part of the media spectacle that games have become, their bodies painted like reconstructed heathens in garish school colors as they invoke the blessings of their gods.
And what of the players themselves? How do they feel about the value of their amateur status? Polling data on this question is scant, but there’s little doubt that those who stand to gain by selling their NIL are not unhappy about that opportunity. In addition, player support for the recent introduction of the NCAA Transfer Portal is, by all appearances, quite strong. According to the NCAA’s own tracking data, in 2021 and 2022 more than 21,000 student-athletes in all sports, both undergraduate and graduate, entered the portal and transferred to another team at another institution—and that’s just in Division 1 alone. These numbers are relevant here because they are another indicator of the professionalization of college sports.
Granted, prior to the creation of the portal, student-athletes who wished to transfer faced an array of discouraging difficulties. Today, they need only to notify their university’s compliance director, who is required to submit an applicant’s name to the NCAA within two days. No doubt a variety of motives drives these transfer applicants, but it is patently evident that a student who has hopes of attracting the attention of, say, NFL or NBA recruiters might be wise to enter the portal to find a team that will provide him with potentially greater exposure on the playing field (or court).
Moreover, colleges in states where “Fair Pay to Play” laws have gone into effect will be in a position to offer transfer athletes the possibility of much more lucrative compensation. One is reminded of the days before the foundation of the NCAA when so-called “tramp athletes,” as reported in McClure’s Magazine (June 1905), “roamed the country making cameo athletic appearances, moving on whenever and wherever the money was better.”
Given all these factors driving collegiate sports toward professionalism, true lovers of amateur sports would do well to consider Huizinga’s reflections on the matter:
“The spirit of the professional,” he argues, “is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness.” In contrast to modern sports, “the great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals … This ritual tie has now been completely severed; sport has become profane, ‘unholy’ in every way.” Neither the Olympiads nor “the organized sports of American universities … have raised sport to the level of a culture-creating activity. However important it may be for players or spectators, it remains sterile.”
In America at least, amateurism lies on its deathbed, except of course in children’s sports and in those local sports clubs whose participants join in for the sheer joy of the game. Perhaps it’s time to cancel your ESPN subscription and join the YMCA.