Wagging the Dog

Review of Pay For Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, by Ronald A. Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. xii + 344 pp.)

In 1903, Harvard University accepted a gift of $100,000 from the Class of 1879 toward construction of a permanent facility in which to play football.  When completed, Harvard Stadium cost over $300,000, held 40,000 people, and was, for a while, the largest steel-reinforced concrete structure in the world.  It still stands.  So do the Yale Bowl (1914), Franklin Field in Philadelphia (1922), the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923), the Horseshoe at Ohio State (1922), Michigan Stadium (1927), Butler Fieldhouse (1928), Cameron Indoor Stadium (1940), Pauley Pavilion (1965), and on and on.  Keep this in mind as you read Pay For Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform

Pay for Play A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform by Ronald A. Smith
Cover of Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform by Ronald A. Smith.

Remind yourself periodically that competitive, commercialized, and capitalized athletic programs are not alien interlopers on the American university campus.  They have always been standard equipment, and their critics have never been sure why.

Few scholars know this better than Ronald Smith, professor emeritus of the history of sport at Penn State.  Smith has devoted his academic career to the examination of "big-time" intercollegiate athletics, and has traced, again and again, the outlines of a deeply commercialized, deeply professionalized cultural institution which nevertheless purports adherence to the values of amateurism and education.  He is therefore in an ideal position to understand the basic futility of "big-time college athletic reform," at least as most academic critics of contemporary intercollegiate athletics understand the phrase. 

Pay For Play simultaneously traces the history of efforts to impose various forms of uniformity and/or control over allegedly amateur scholar-athletes, and demonstrates just how many layers of quotation mark you need to place around terms like "scholar-athlete" and "amateur" before they describe any kind of recognizable historical reality.

As Smith has already demonstrated in 1988's Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics, and revisits briefly here, intercollegiate athletics were initially student-driven and entrepreneurial, not educational, and were infused from the very beginning with the values of competitive professionalism, pragmatic commercialism, and thirst for victory.  They were also infused with an Anglophilic "amateur" sensibility within which physical competition built character if, but only if, the individual athlete abstained from remuneration.  A basic premise of Smith's work, both in Pay For Play and elsewhere, is the fundamental insolubility of this value mix.  A basic premise of "big-time college athletic reform," on the other hand, is and has always been the need to dissolve these contradictions.  Pay For Play functions as a narrative history of this irreconcilability.

Smith identifies five constituencies within the academy which have been theoretically capable, at any given time, of re-shaping intercollegiate athletics in a meaningful way: students, faculty, college presidents, college governing boards, and alumni.  Four of them, however, have never really been interested in reform, at least not in a way which would make athletics genuinely amateur and/or genuinely subordinate to an idealized conception of undergraduate education.  Students and alumni drove the emergence of competitive athletics in the first place, and have been responsible for most of the excesses needing reformed.  College presidents and governing boards, while often critical of the negative publicity generated by commercial excess and academic scandal, have nevertheless been too captivated by the institutional notoriety and positive publicity generated by athletic success to really challenge its core premises.  Only faculty forces have demonstrated the occasional inclination to do so, but they have been largely without independent power and usually without allies. 

In this environment, "amateur" athletics have remained commercial and extra-educational despite a century and a half of alleged reform movements.  Readers looking in Pay For Play for passionate arguments in favor of their preferred paths to change will probably be disappointed.  They will find instead a sharp sense of irony and a wearying miasma of déjà vu.

This is not to say nothing has changed.  Smith traces significant changes in the institutional governance and national regulation of intercollegiate athletics.  Financial and administrative control drifted away from students at the turn of the twentieth century and toward salaried professionals in the employ of the institutions themselves.  Regional conferences and, eventually, the NCAA limited athletic eligibility to bona fide undergraduates for a fixed number of academic years.  National standards of tuition subsidization and recruiting procedure emerged, culminating in the current grant-in-aid regime. Brutality, cheating, and illegal compensation scandals came and went without inflicting long-term damage.  The current big-time intercollegiate athletic industry is in fact highly regulated, rationalized, and capitalized, just like most other national entertainment institutions.

But virtually all of these reforms, Smith points out repeatedly, have been in the name of competitive equity between peer institutions in the chase for athletic talent rather than in the name of de-commercialization or fidelity to any kind of educational idealism.  "The principal driving force for reform was to create a level playing field, especially dealing with those who gave athletic scholarships and those who did not," Smith writes of the post-WWII "Sanity Code," a failed effort by the NCAA to impose uniform national scholarship restrictions.  "As in the past, the question of the lack of academic integrity was not nearly as important as whether some institutions had athletic advantages over others." (89) 

This is not what most critics of intercollegiate athletics mean by "reform."  They mean subordinating athletics to a vision of academic integrity.  They mean subordinating athletics to a vision of de-commercialized austerity.  They mean subordinating athletics to a vision of amateur purity.  They mean subordinating athletics.  This, Smith makes clear, has never happened.

Smith is particularly contemptuous of the idea that college presidents ever have or ever will represent a genuinely transformative force on these issues.  He repeatedly refers to them as "cheerleaders" for their institutions' athletic aspirations, and deconstructs the sincerity of tough-talking presidents from Charles Eliot at Harvard in the late nineteenth century all the way through to the Knight Commission in the 1990s and the recent reorganization of the NCAA around presidential authority.  Even the occasional exceptions to this rule – the University of Chicago's summary execution of football in 1939, the post-WWII de-emphasis of athletics in what we now call the Ivy League – represent off-ramps taken by individual institutions rather than any real de-biggening of the big-time.

To the extent that genuinely systematic change has happened, it has been driven by forces outside the academy altogether.  Title IX of the Educational Act of 1972, which exposed intercollegiate athletics to legal liability on gender equity grounds, is the best example.  Smith seems ambivalent about the impact of Title IX.  It destroyed a less competitive, less commercial, more educational model of women's college athletics which, while obviously discriminatory, nevertheless came closer to an amateur ideal than any male athletics ever have.  Other forces from outside the academy, such as national accrediting organizations and muckraking foundations like the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, occasionally exercised independent pressure, but seldom had transformative impact.  Only the Feds have really moved the needle.  Maybe only the Feds can.

The real issue, of course, is the interest, and therefore the revenue, that college football and basketball generate. College presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and alumni do everything they can to maximize that interest, but they didn't create it, and they probably can't destroy it.  It is an organic thing, which exists.  So is  Ohio State's institutional compulsion to measure itself against everything Michigan does; Auburn's institutional compulsion to measure itself against everything Alabama does; UCLA's institutional compulsion to measure itself against everything USC does; and so on.  Unilateral disarmament is impossible, and effective collective action is highly, highly improbable.

Pay For Play is concerned largely with administrators, academics, and earnest reformers responding to crises, real or perceived.  Readers interested in all the colorful academic scandals, slush funds, subsidization battles, and cover-ups which generated these crises in the first place should also consult John Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, Kurt Kemper's College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era, and/or any of the three volumes Michael Oriard has written about the history of college football's long, fond embrace of the mass media. 

Or, watch Sportscenter for about a week.  Something is sure to come up.