Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr, Review of Ronald A. Smith, “Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform” (University of Illinois Press, 2011).

Jan 5, 2011 11:49 am

Luther Spoehr, Review of Ronald A. Smith, “Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform” (University of Illinois Press, 2011).

[Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer at Brown University, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics.]

The already-battered image of the “student-athlete” took more hits in 2010. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, returned his trophy when it came out that he had been on the take at the University of Southern California. This year’s Heisman winner, Auburn’s Cam Newton, is already under a cloud after stories surfaced that his father had solicited money from at least one school in return for his son’s services. In addition to these high-profile cases, there were the usual eligibility scandals, felony charges, over-the-line recruiting tactics, and the like. It was enough to make one wax nostalgic for the good old days, when athletes were students first and intercollegiate athletics were untainted by commercialism and professionalism.

Of course, as historian Ronald Smith of Penn State is quick to point out, those good old days never existed. The very first intercollegiate competition, an 1852 boat race on Lake Winnipesaukee between Harvard and Yale, was essentially a promotional scheme concocted by the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad. By the end of the 19th century, as football was becoming the dominant collegiate sport, concern about who was actually playing the games and why led to an outcry against “tramp athletes,” who moved from school to school and played for pay.

Some players moved quickly: Fielding Yost, later a storied coach at the University of Michigan, transferred in 1896 from West Virginia University to Lafayette College just in time for Lafayette’s big game against the powerhouse University of Pennsylvania. After helping the Leopards go onward to victory, he promptly transferred back to WVU and finished up his law degree.

Some players were notable for longevity. Walter Camp, founding father of Yale football, played for his alma mater for seven years. Graham Foster played six years at Fairmount College and three more at Yale. And such lengthy tenure, Smith reports, was not unusual. Undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, and ringers: you never knew who might turn up on the field.

Smith’s first book, “Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics” (1990) covered the first half-century of these shenanigans, which culminated in the organization in 1905 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). His new book revisits some of the same material, then moves through an additional century of higher education’s attempts to control the monster it had created. The book’s final chapters deal with ongoing efforts to deal with conundrums such as freshman eligibility, graduation rates, and the monopolistic juggernaut that is college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

The story does not have an encouraging trajectory. Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton, lamented that “the sideshow [of extracurriculars] has swallowed up the circus.” A century later, former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt was less metaphorical as he pointed out that the sideshow had gotten bigger: “As long as higher education continues to allow the networks, the media, the sporting apparel companies, and the American public—not to mention celebrity coaches and ambitious athletic directors—to promote and pressure college sports to become an entertainment industry, there will be little progress toward true reform within the athletics programs.”

Smith tells the sad tale of the endless, repetitive cycle of scandal and “reform” clearly, conscientiously and graphically: “Some of the same questions arose whether raised by the faculties of Harvard and Princeton in the 1880s, the Brown Conference at the turn of the century, the Carnegie Foundation’s Report in 1929, the American Council on Education’s Report in 1952, the Hanford Report in 1974, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in 1991, or at the National Symposium on Athletic Reform of the early twenty-first century.”

A familiar, rhythmic pattern repeats itself over and over: educators see abuses, form committees, issue reports, and the abuses go on, either the same as before or in mutated form, while the reports gather dust on the shelves. But Smith’s eye for the vivid quotation and the telling statistic rescues his narrative, even if it doesn’t make it a cheerful one. In one memorable early paragraph, for instance, he quotes half a dozen optimists (mainly college presidents) who, over the decades, expressed confidence that all would be well if only college and university presidents took command. The rest of the book shows why this didn’t--and won’t--happen.

“In almost all cases,” Smith says, “reform efforts over the first century and a half of intercollegiate sports were brought about for one of four reasons: (1) to create competitive equity, the ‘level playing field’; (2) to bring about financial solvency; (3) to consider banning or restricting brutal or unsavory practices; or (4) to achieve academic integrity.” Although schools and conferences have had at least some success with the first three, the fourth has been an unmitigated failure.

The NCAA, a “debating society” for its first half-century, got some real leverage over member institutions only when it started making money (and then lots and lots of it) from its men’s basketball tournament. But although its rulebook is thick, its enforcement staff is small, and trying to keep the “student” in “student-athlete” has been pretty much a futile endeavor.

The point of no return may have been reached in the early 1970s, when the money was really starting to roll in. Freshman eligibility and allowing schools to issue renewable, one-year (rather than four-year) athletic scholarships essentially turned players into employees who could be dismissed at will. Declining standards in the nation’s schools (particularly inner-city ones), combined with the growing demand for college education, meant that more and more entering freshmen, including athletes, weren’t prepared for higher education. Even the ideals of the civil rights movement were manipulated to take advantage of “student-athletes,” as coaches cloaked their exploitation of players in the rhetoric of wanting to “give everyone a chance to get a college education.”

In the old days, when conferences and the NCAA made rules requiring that players be students, coaches and institutions fudged the definition of “student.” That evasive game has continued for 100 years. Now, when the NCAA says that schools must report the Academic Progress Rate (APR) for their athletes, Smith points out that “the unintended consequence was for institutions to provide curricula designed to meet the needs of the APR.” Thanks to such academic safe havens, in Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision) “more than four out of five schools had one team with at least 25 percent of its juniors and seniors entered in the same major….At the University of Southern California, 58 percent of its football team members were in sociology, while 48 percent of Boise State University football players were in communications. At Texas-El Paso, 100 percent of its men’s basketball team majored in interdisciplinary studies.”

Smith argues convincingly that college presidents, more often cheerleaders than reformers, and hamstrung by the demands of alumni, boosters, fans, and the media, will never be able to bring about substantial change. Almost wistfully, he looks to the faculty (historically the group most critical of big-time athletics), backed by enlightened governing boards, as the most likely internal agents of change. That, however, seems unlikely, too. Individual institutions will not be able to turn the tide.

According to Smith, changes might also come at the hand of the federal government, which has driven some of the most significant on-campus developments of the past 45 years through enforcement of the Civil Rights laws and Title IX. The BCS may not be able to dodge charges of anti-trust violations forever, and clarification of the tax code could make it harder for athletic departments’ obviously non-academic activities to be considered part of a non-profit operation. Whether legal action on these and similar matters would lead to real educational reform for “student-athletes,” however, is uncertain, to say the least.

Aside from the media, Smith doesn’t send much time on the external forces that influence change within the university as a whole. The “corporatization” of the university is proceeding apace, arguably affecting the chemistry and political science departments just as much as the athletic program. Professors seeking tenure need to get grants which bring money into the institution. Students see themselves as consumers entitled to satisfaction. Administrators want to keep everybody, especially students and alumni, happy. Let the games begin.

Current trends in big-time athletics may not be reversible, and they may not even be deflectable. One last, recent example might illustrate how the commercial imperative warps not only behavior but also attitudes and ethics. At the end of this past football season, five Ohio State football players, including its most visible star, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were found to have violated NCAA rules by selling personal memorabilia for profit and receiving special discounts from—what else, in this day and age?--a tattoo parlor. Although they were suspended for five games, starting next fall, they were allowed to play in the January 4 Allstate Sugar Bowl (note the corporate sponsorship), whose executives were counting on attracting a sellout crowd. Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said that the five should be allowed to play to “preserve the integrity of this year’s game.” To paraphrase that noted sportswriter Ralph Waldo Emerson, the word “integrity” in the mouth of Mr. Hoolahan sounds like the word “love” in the mouth of a courtesan. But he got what he wanted.

Ronald Smith’s prose is not Emersonian (far too many misplaced modifiers, for one thing), but it gets the job done. Reforming big-time college athletics, as he demonstrates, has been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, a Sisyphean task.

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