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The endless argument at the center of college football

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Amateur athletes are making money for their universities. This has baffled the top minds of the 1890s.

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Michigan Stadium in 1927
Michigan Stadium, packed full of ticket-buyers in 1927.
Public domain, Kaufmann & Fabry Co via the Library of Congress. Banner Society illustration.

First, read this, from 1929:

Nothing in the educational regime of our higher institutions perplexes the European visitor so much as the role that organized athletics play. On a crisp November afternoon he finds many thousands of men and women, gathered in a great amphitheater, wildly cheering a group of athletes who are described to him as playing a game of football, but who seem to be engaged in a battle.

He is the more mystified when he discovers that of the thousands of onlookers, not one in a hundred understands the game or can follow the strategy. At the end, the vast majority of the onlookers only know, like old Kaspar of Blenheim, that” ‘twas a famous victory” for one university or the other.

When the visitor from the European university has pondered the matter, he comes to his American university colleagues with two questions:

“What relation has this astonishing athletic display to the work of an intellectual agency like a university?”

“How do students, devoted to study, find either the time or the money to stage so costly a performance?”

Steel kingpin Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching produced this in a 383-page study of American college athletics, frequently focusing on the decades-old (already!) quandary of amateur athletes generating profits for their universities. The study included visits to 112 college campuses and interviews ranging from presidents to recruits.

Some college competitions had been making money for about 80 years already. Harvard-Yale rowing contests in the 1850s immediately fused public entertainment with America’s mimicry of European aristocratic amateurism, with the juxtaposition growing stark in the late 1800s as the profit-generating amateurs started coming from the working class. So the Carnegie Report functions as a definitive assessment of roughly the first half of American intercollegiate athletics history.

Nearly a century later, a brief summary since 1929:

That’s English actor Stephen Fry, thrown into the 2007 Iron Bowl, “a fixture that has the scale, intensity, and hoopla of a grand national final, but is in reality only a local derby between amateur students.”

“It’s simultaneously preposterous, incredibly laughable, impressive, charming, ridiculous, expensive, overpopulated, wonderful,” is his eight-decade echo of 1929’s astonished Carnegie Report.

The survey delved into anything you might like to know about the first 60 years of college football, including whether some recruits landed financial inducements, why coaches got fired, how much play-calling freedom coaches allowed to their players, why schools played faraway name brands instead of local rivals, whether small schools had real chances to compete, why athletic departments focused more on football than on other sports, whether football subsidized almost all other college sports, how much of the money went directly to players, and so forth.

(The answers to each of these questions: about the same as right now.)

But over and over, it reads as if Carnegie’s authors can’t believe the obvious issue still hasn’t been resolved. The report follows all these threads back to a central question: amateurism vs. profitability.

When an amateur sport generates runaway profits, where should they go? And if no one can agree on the answer, then can you just turn off the faucet?

About a century later, there’s something here to prop up both sides of the debate. The report finds fault with players who don’t pine for the elusive ideal of letting someone else keep all the money:

The root of all difficulties with the amateur status touches the desires of certain athletes to retain the prestige that amateurism confers and at the same time to reap the monetary or material rewards of professionalism. The results [damage] college athletics and probably in other forms of competition have included equivocation, false statements concerning eligibility, and other forms of dishonesty, which are to be numbered among the fruits of commercialism.

But Carnegie’s authors are also frustrated with the people who are making actual money, such as the admins who are investing far more in coaches than in professors. They cast the surprise athletics cash influx of the late 1800s as poison that never stopped seeping throughout campus:

It is frequently argued that commercialism can be beneficent as well as harmful. This argument neglects the influence of time, which in its passage withers the beneficent aspects of commercialism into evils that are the more difficult to eradicate.

Commercialism has made possible the erection of fine academic buildings and the increase of equipment from the profits of college athletics, but those profits have been gained because colleges have permitted the youths entrusted to their care to be openly exploited.

In general, university trustees are relatively innocent of commercialism by formal or tacit delegation of their responsibilities. Yet they have profited by it; the task of finding money for new equipment and buildings has been lightened.

As for members of faculties, commercialism has added to their numbers through providing from athletic profits a part of the salaries of certain teachers. Rising gate receipts have brought them enlarged facilities.

Commercialism has added to the amusement of alumni, but it has corrupted the moral fibre of not a few of them through its temptations to recruit and subsidize.

One key difference between the Carnegie Report and our modern argument: its authors remembered a time before amateur employees produced profits. Decades later, all we know is the world in which March Madness is a billion-dollar property.

Since 1929, we’ve made peace with the fact that money is pumping into universities via unsalaried students. We’ve only shifted the debate to where the money ends up. And in nearly two centuries, that’s how far the argument has made it.

Without the hindsight benefit of knowing how entrenched the new reality was, and while acknowledging the system was too “complex and overlaid with the interests of individuals” to be fixed by any one entity, the Carnegie Report’s ultimate suggestions were to trust new organizations like the NCAA (at the time, a 23-year-old on-field rulebook generator), for everyone to care less about money, and for an enormous country to agree on broad philosophies concerning hundreds of local institutions.

The prime needs of our college athletics are two.

The first is a change of values in a field that is sodden with the commercial and the material and the vested interests that these forces have created. Commercialism in college athletics must be diminished and college sport must rise to a point where it is esteemed primarily and sincerely for the opportunities it affords to mature youth under responsibility, to exercise at once the body and the mind.

[Secondly,] whichever conception of the function of the American college, intellectual or socializing agency, be adopted, let only the chosen ideal be followed with sincerity and clear vision, and in the course of years our college sport will largely take care of itself.

Easy peasy!

The fun part: the whole argument was locked in place way, way before 1929. Let’s time travel.

Ninety years ago, it was clear this money had long sought a way around the word “amateurism” and into the hands of those doing the actual work. These quotes are all via Carnegie:

On the Pacific Coast, the larger institutions, having expended much ineffectual effort to control the abuse [of amateurism, as in, promising personal benefits to athletes], are even now attempting to arrive at an equitable solution through common understanding.

From similar cares the Southern Conference is by no means free. In the words of one of its coaches, there is “cut-throat competition” for prospective athletes. The president of another Southern university, newly founded, complained of the competition for a prominent athlete whom he himself had tried to secure.

In the Rocky Mountain Conference, sentiment in favor of recruiting recurrently strikes certain institutions with full force.

Parts of Pennsylvania and the adjacent territory have long accepted and openly practiced it as indispensable to victory in football. Organizations varying in type from the loosely informal group in the East to the oldest and strongest of conferences, although they have succeeded in influencing the evil, redirecting it, curtailing it, partly controlling it, or changing its form, have not permanently affected its existence.

Let’s go back further:

Before, say, 1917, recruiting appears to have been conducted by enthusiastic under- graduates and by athletes themselves more generally than it is today, except at a few institutions where fraternities have not yet outgrown such practices. The subsidizing that accompanied recruiting under these auspices was comparatively ineffectual and certainly crude.

Since those days, a more businesslike procedure has been developed by older persons on the basis of experience in previous years and in the field of commerce. About 1919, there began to spread through the East and South and along the Pacific Coast a contagion of ready assistance to promising athletes, which was initiated and coordinated mainly by older hands.

The result is that today, notwithstanding many statements to the contrary, the colleges and universities of the United States are confronted with acute problems of recruiting and subsidizing.

(Recruiting would only become more and more industrialized throughout the following decades, and the act of “subsidizing” is now so sophisticated that it has its own code of rules.)

The amateurism debate as a trench war (as in, static and brutal) goes back to, well, the time of actual trench warfare:

Sports have grown to an unprecedented importance as news. Amateur sports, especially college and school athletics, have been increasingly emphasized [since 1915].

And back further, to the attempts by outside institutions to wrangle the beast:

With the control of athletics nominally in the hands of faculty members at numbers of universities and colleges, it might be expected that by some means their expansion would be diminished or at least regulated with a degree of strictness. Such has not proved to be the case.

Since 1906 their intensity has not abated, intercollegiate rivalry has not grown appreciably kinder, and [the focus on money-making sports] has much increased; costs have mounted amazingly. A part of the growing expenditure has been due to improvements in buildings, playing fields, and equipment of all kinds, and a portion of the money thus paid out has benefited the building investments of universities.

Back to the 1890s:

The present situation in American college athletics could be described and efficacious remedies proposed merely by setting forth a series of quotations from materials published before 1900. The complaints that have been voiced since 1900 have been in the main echoes or amplifications of the adverse criticisms of previous years. [...]

Protests against the exploitation of school and college athletes are not new. Thirty years ago, Professor Henry D. Sheldon [...]: ‘Such a cheap notoriety tends to place the football player on a level with the prize-fighting profession.’

Dr. [Edward] Hartwell was moved to write in the Report of the United States Commissioner of Education for 1897-98,

‘The powerlessness of our educational leaders to originate, and their failure to adopt, effectual measures for evolving order out of the athletic and gymnastic chaos over which they nominally preside, constitutes one of the marvels of our time.’

In consequence, there was scarcely a struggle for the control of college athletics; the alumni, or such of them as concerned themselves actively with the matter, achieved dominion almost by default.

Keep going:

A study of facts and opinions set forth from time to time since 1896 in the publications of various bodies, like the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Education Association, by men possessing much knowledge of the conditions involved, makes clear that matters have improved.

On the other hand, letters, accounts, and other records indicate that this improvement has been one of degree but not of kind; some of these letters, a sampling of which is printed in the Appendix, might easily, if their dates were altered, do duty under present conditions.

(That appendix include routine business like “I can promise you that we will be able to get [the prospective student-athlete] a job at one of the fraternities.”)

Almost there:

The accusations against athletics current in the last decade of the [19th] century might easily have served as a source-book for their later opponents.

They included charges of [over-emphasizing football for financial reasons], demoralization of the college and of academic work, dishonesty, betting and gambling, professionalism, recruiting and subsidizing, the employment and payment of the wrong kind of men as coaches, the evil effects of college athletics upon school athletics, the roughness and brutality of football, extravagant expenditures of money, and the general corruption of youth.

To the 1880s:

Later writers in support of college athletics have added very few if any important arguments to those of their predecessors. But there were other comments of a warning nature.

The tendencies noted as having been initiated about 1880, which gave rise to a gathering alarm over the expansion of athletics and the flock of evils that beset their progress, resemble in kind those which characterize certain aspects of the present day. [...]

The twenty years between 1886 and 1906 contain the origins of those defects which are to be traced in our college athletics of the present day.

And right around there, the report strikes roots:

About 1880, expansion began. More branches of athletics were introduced. Training was intensified and elaborated, and trainers were employed. Coaching began to be a progressively technical task, and paid coaches grew to be rather the rule than the exception. [...] Equipment ashore and afloat grew in amount, in complexity, and, above all, in cost.

All of these factors were reflected in a rapidly rising expenditure for athletics, which called for increased funds for their support, whether from subscriptions or from gate receipts or from both. Charges for admission to football contests, the origin of which is obscure, advanced in some instances to $1.50.

Special financial support began to be solicited from alumni. One result was that alumni who made generous contributions to college athletics received, openly or covertly, in return, a generous share in their control.

Per this timeline, it took college football roughly one decade to create boosters, the amateurism market’s invisible hands. They (for their own reasons) made sure players got portions of the money generated by players. The only noticeable change since 1880: boosters now wear dri-fit polo shirts and have multiple cell phones.

Just about one major thing has changed: we now agree it is OK to pay amateurs, as long as the NCAA controls who actually spends that money. It’s weird that we can pay amateurs anything at all, right?

By the 1920s, an open secret was that some college students could get full rides simply by being good at football. The scholarship argument worked like today’s transfer portal arguments — everyone complained about everyone else doing it. The athletic scholarship was so sinful, the Carnegie Report shamed even the schools employing athletes in jobs meant to cover tuition.

Here’s the NCAA’s first definition of amateur, from 1909 (my emphasis added):

1. An amateur in athletics is one who enters and takes part in athletic contests purely in obedience to the play impulses or for the satisfaction of purely play motives and for the exercise, training, and social pleasure derived. The natural or primary attitude of mind in play determines amateurism.

2. A professional in athletics is one who enters or takes part in any athletic contest from any other motive than the satisfaction of pure play impulses, or for the exercise, training, or social pleasures derived, or one who desires and secures from his skill or who accepts of spectators, partisans, or other interests, any material or economic advantage or reward.

About a decade after 1929’s Carnegie Report, some conferences like the Southwest weren’t idealistically turning a blind eye to the reality of the market. Instead, they were regulating which benefits players could receive, including money for meals, lodging, and more. Some schools around the country were straight-up paying players.

A decade-long squabble commenced:

  • In 1948, the NCAA passed “the sanity code,” barring players from special financial assistance. Before adoption, the new rule faced “surprisingly little discussion,” a great sign for national implementation.
  • Plenty of institutions hated the code. Georgia Tech’s AD argued it encouraged cheating, since players still had to pay expenses. The SEC’s commissioner said academics would suffer (wink wink), since players would cut back on studying in order to make ends meet. The SEC and SoCon wanted to bring back meal stipends, but:
The Atlanta Constitution, December 11, 1949
  • In 1950, the NCAA asked member schools whether they were following the “sanity code” or compensating athletes. Boston College, The Citadel, Maryland, Villanova, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and VMI chose to answer honestly.

A trial of sorts was held in January of 1950 at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, where UVa president Colgate Darden Jr. represented six of the Sinful Seven in defense. The Citadel did not attempt a defense, instead offering their resignation because they refused to “to lie to stay in the association.”

Maryland’s president, H.C. Byrd, was another leader for the seven, managing a campaign against the Sanity Code. At the Commodore Hotel, Byrd famously asked the assembled, “Does Ohio State want to vote for expulsion of Virginia, when Ohio State has facilities to take care of four or five as many athletes as Virginia?”

The shocking thing about the situation was that, with the exception of Maryland which had a very large scholarship program, none of the sinful seven were among the great football factories of the time. As one writer puts it, “it was like a teetotaler announcing that he was about to open a liquor store.”

  • A year later, NCAA members voted to kill the “sanity code,” reinstating “open, above-board scholarships,” as the SEC’s commish put it. The SWC immediately restored the basics, including $10 per month in laundry money. (Meanwhile, the lesson the NCAA mall cops took from the “sanity code” debacle: try to become scarier-looking mall cops.)
  • In 1956, Look magazine revealed the Big Ten had been agonizing over The Debate for years, trying both to support the players enabling the construction of 80,000-seat stadiums and to resemble a bastion of amateurism. The conference “is simply wiggling, twisting and juggling within its own code to give football players a chance to break even,” said the magazine.
  • In 1957, the NCAA decided all athletes could receive not just full rides and per diems, but also transportation costs as prospects on visits. “Recruiting,” long a dirty word, was now out in the open. As always, the legislative process was orderly:
Asheville Citizen-Times, January 12, 1957
  • The Big Ten, forever the money inhaler that most worries about safeguarding players from profits, decided to base its athlete benefit rules off formulas that required players parents’ to share income information. You can guess how long this lasted. In 1962, the Big Ten got rid of “financial need” as a factor, and there you had it: nobody would ever again bat an eye at paying all the amateurs, so long as the payment was in store credit.

In hindsight, the fact that we compensate amateur athletes is not only a historical oxymoron. It’s also the key.

Go back a century, and you’d be hissed at for suggesting students should get free school just for being good at football. To receive an economic reward makes one a professional, said the NCAA in 1909.

And now look at us: hundreds of colleges openly hand out economic rewards in the form of scholarships and associated benefits.

Based on the NCAA’s foundational documents, Division I athletics haven’t been amateur sports for decades now. In the 1950s, we just agreed to fudge the definition so universities could stop lying.

“The football contest that so astonishes the foreign visitor [...] has been transformed from a game played by boys into a profitable professional enterprise. [...] At no other point in college athletics is honesty so severely tested as it is in connection with the convention of amateurism,” said the Carnegie Report decades before the entire country started openly compensating supposed amateurs.

Honesty it is, then.

College football has been making so much cash for so long, it hasn’t been an amateur sport for at least half a century anyway. We already pay players, albeit wildly out of proportion with what we pay their coaches. Now just bridge that gap by letting college football’s pro athletes make actual money.