The Professional-Amateur problem and the athlete as laborer
Ron Chenoy / US PRESSWIRE

What is true of the prize ring is no less true of professional baseball. The Ruths, Cohens, Cobbs and Hornsbys are primarily business men, not sportsmen. As Mr. Grover Cleveland Alexander, the star pitcher of the St. Louis team, said last summer: "Baseball to-day is 'big business' and most of the fellows going into it are business men first and baseball players secondly." This is quite true. And most of the stars of baseball have managers, press agents, secretaries and assistants to act for them whenever necessary, who fill the role that Mr. Ivy Lee so capably fills for Mr. John D. Rockefeller. The science of baseball, as Mr. Alexander says, is a business, like the science of the prize ring. Like big business, these two sciences are crooked, though no more crooked than is necessary to delude the sport-loving public of the United States and yet show a profit on the annual balance sheet. Professional baseball, professional boxing, are no more sports than professional acting.

These strong words directed at the business of baseball appeared in $port$: Heroics and Hysterics, a 298-page excoriation of the American professional sports industry written by John Tunis in 1929. Tunis, as many hot sports takers have done since, bemoaned the ever inflating impact of money on the sports world. Money was tainting sport. It invited match fixing, and the presence of business figures like agents and promoters. It turned sport into performance art.

Unlike many of today's sports commentators, like those who would defend the NCAA's ability to profit off unpaid college athletes, Tunis did not begrudge America's professional athletes of the 1920s their ability to pursue a paycheck with their talents. "When Mademoiselle Suzanne Lenglen turned professional several years ago," Tunis writes, "she made a number of statements to the press; remarking among other things that as there was a lot of money in lawn tennis she thought she might as well have some of it. That is a frank and understandable point of view. Tennis players have just as much right to profit by their skill as boxers, home-run kings, and channel swimmers."

But while Tunis recognizes the athlete's claim to the money her sport generates, there is no honor in it. Tunis invokes the French word for athletes like Lenglen -- exhibitionistes -- and the sleaziness its English translation entails. "Does the increase in professional exhibitionists tend toward the day when tennis will be open to the same suspicion as baseball and boxing?" Tunis asks, rhetorically.

This argument follows the same principles as arguments the NCAA deploys to support amateurism today. The particulars vary -- the American sports fan hardly devotes a passing thought to match fixing any more, for instance  -- but NCAA proponents argue infusing money into its games would remove their appeal. This is the idea NCAA president Mark Emmert was pushing when he testified last week, "To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into minor league sports. And we know that in the U.S. minor league sports aren't very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience."

Tunis certainly would have hated the NCAA in its current form, as no organization represents commercialism of sport more; indeed, in one chapter devoted to the ills of football, Tunis takes universities and the NCAA to task for high ticket prices and expanding budgets for stadiums and training facilities. But Tunis's argument and Emmert's argument share a critical element: They refuse to treat the athlete as a worker. Tunis begins his 12th chapter, "The Trend Toward Professionalism," as such:

Nowadays it is often a little difficult to distinguish between our stellar athletes in their vocation and their avocation. Is Mr. Babe Ruth an author or a baseball player?

Tunis fails to see athletics as anything other than an avocation, a diversion from employment, and as it is for many fans today, a diversion from life or the so-called real world. He never once refers to the money earned by a professional athlete as wage. If anything, Tunis sees the athlete as an equally complicit partner in the destruction of sport through business. It is one thing to treat Ruth, a man who earned great riches and fame through baseball, as such. It is another to act as if the 25th man on the major league roster, or the career minor leaguer, or the NCAA "student-athlete" has the same kind of agency in the process.

Tunis calls this the "professional-amateur problem" -- the lines are blurring, he claims, and sport is threatened as a result. Tunis cites the Romans' success in maintaining the clear distinction between professional and amateur:

The boxer, the chariot racer, the athlete who performed for money was well known in the days of the Roman empire. The Romans despised those classes who ministered to their pleasure professionally; actors, gladiators and musicians were held in contempt; but the professional athletes were an exception to the rule. Not only were they received with honor, but they were free men, allowed to organize into associations which arranged for their appearances in public. Certainly in the Rome of the Emperors no stigma seems to have attached to the professional athlete.

What Tunis describes in the successful sporting environment of Ancient Rome is precisely a vocation, a job. The athletes worked at their craft and performed for people as as service. They even formed the earliest players unions. What Tunis lays out can be described as a separation between the amateur and the professional, but I think it can more accurately be called a distinction between the amateur and the laborer.

Both the American sports system and Tunis's Rome pay athletes. The difference is in the presence of the owner, the agent, the businessman constantly attempting to turn the American athlete into profit. The fingerprints of the owners are all over the sleaziest of baseball's scandals. And free agency and other such rights giving athletes freedom of choice in their work were only won through collective bargaining and the formation of players associations just as in Tunis's Rome.

Critically, in Tunis's Rome, players were "received with honor." This is the greatest of Tunis's laments, the absence of honor from his beloved sports. But in America, there are few honors greater than the living wage paid in exchange for work. Until this idea pervades all levels of commercialized sport -- from the peak of the Major Leagues down to short season ball and into the NCAA -- professional sports will never rid itself of the slimy elements Tunis rightfully disdained in 1929 and would still disdain today.

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The Professional-Amateur problem and the athlete as laborer
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