Amateur Sports: Show Us The Money!

The last four months have not been pleasant for people who believe in the principle of amateur competition in the world of sports. The spirit of commercialism, in its unrelenting manner, has continued to encroach upon the former showcase venues of nonprofit sportsmanship.

Four months ago, for instance, the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games featured the illusion of film star Daniel Craig leaping from an airplane with Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. The spectacle was designed to publicize the release of the movie Skyfall, the latest installment in the James Bond film series.

And then last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg awkwardly relented and cancelled the New York City Marathon after repeatedly insisting that the foot race would be staged around the ruins of the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg initially resisted its cancellation because the event generates several hundred million dollars of economic activity for the Big Apple each year.

Finally, last week, a novel type of commercial activity suddenly confronted denizens of the world of American college sports. A publicly traded, for profit corporation decided to bankroll a Division I college sports program for the first time.

150 Years of Money

For the past one and a half centuries, of course, monied interests have been interacting with the venues of amateur sports. As early as 1860, organized baseball’s first star player James (Jim) Creighton was rumored to earn $500 while playing for the ostensibly amateur Excelsior Club of Brooklyn, New York. Nine years later, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first baseball team to publicly acknowledge that it was paying compensation to its players.

Over forty years later, in 1912, Jim Thorpe won Olympic Gold Medals in the track and field events of the Pentathlon and the Decathlon. But the following year, he was stripped of his medals because he had previously accepted as little as $2 per day for playing minor league baseball as a college student.

The next one hundred years witnessed the continued erosion of the amateur ideal, with the emergence of the so-called financial Golden Age of sports in the 1920s, the launch of the modern era of America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association after World War II, the celebrated dominance of the American basketball Dream Team in the Olympic Games of 1992, and the ruinous appearance of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in the Tour de France and other events.

None of these occurrences, though, featured a direct challenge by a publicly traded corporation on the field of play itself. Last week, we witnessed such a challenge.

Introducing … Grand Canyon University!

The corporation that issued this challenge was Phoenix, Arizona based Grand Canyon Education Inc., a publicly traded firm that is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. It acquired the formerly nonprofit Christian institution Grand Canyon University eight years ago; its representatives recently announced that the organization will finance the growth of its college sports program and will begin play in the Division I Western Athletic Conference next year.

Interestingly, Grand Canyon isn’t even the largest publicly traded, for profit university in the city of Phoenix, Arizona! That honor is held by the Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix, a mammoth institution that served approximately half a billion active students two years ago. Its roster has declined precipitously since then, though, in the wake of severe concerns about student enrollment abuses at for-profit academic programs.

Furthermore, the Grand Canyon announcement wasn’t the only business communique that surprised the academic sports world last week. Rutgers and the University of Maryland announced that they would abandon their existing conference affiliations and join the Big Ten Conference in search of more revenue. And the Big East Conference announced that it would affiliate with Tulane University of New Orleans, Louisiana, a metropolis that is not geographically situated in the East at all.

The Olympic Spirit

Some pundits complained that the announcements were “ridiculous,” and that we were witnessing a “silly season” of college football. Other commentators, however, took note of the underlying conditions that are causing economic distress, and explained the circumstances of conference shifting as a function of supply and demand Hardly any one noted, though, that criticisms about the pervasive impact of financial considerations have existed since the earliest days of collegiate sports itself.

After all, as early as 1893, Yale University’s iconic football coach Walter Camp warned in Volume 37 of Harper’s Weekly: “Did you hear the money jingle? Perhaps not yet, but the chink of silver will soon subside into the more quiet rustle of the bank note, and anything like amateur sport for gentlemen be but the name for something entirely antiquated and forgotten.”

Camp, of course, is now known as the “Father of American Football.” Ironically, though, Camp voiced his warning about “bank notes” the year after he left the 1892 Yale national championship team to accept a lucrative coaching position at the newly established Stanford University. Given his own career choices, would Camp have expressed any surprise at the state of collegiate football today?