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

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In an era when college football coaches frequently command higher salaries than university presidents, many call for reform to restore the balance between amateur athletics and the educational mission of schools. This book traces attempts at college athletics reform from 1855 through the early twenty-first century while analyzing the different roles played by students


In an era when college football coaches frequently command higher salaries than university presidents, many call for reform to restore the balance between amateur athletics and the educational mission of schools. This book traces attempts at college athletics reform from 1855 through the early twenty-first century while analyzing the different roles played by students, faculty, conferences, university presidents, the NCAA, legislatures, and the Supreme Court.   Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform also tackles critically important questions about eligibility, compensation, recruiting, sponsorship, and rules enforcement. Discussing reasons for reform--to combat corruption, to level the playing field, and to make sports more accessible to minorities and women--Ronald A. Smith candidly explains why attempts at change have often failed. Of interest to historians, athletic reformers, college administrators, NCAA officials, and sports journalists, this thoughtful book considers the difficulty in balancing the principles of amateurism with the need to draw income from sporting events.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this provocative book ... [Smith] details the efforts to purify intercollegiate sports since the first teams faced off in the 1850s. He makes a solid case for why reforms are needed."—Diverse: Issues in Higher Education
"A major contribution to the history of college sports. This astounding book does not leave a stone unturned, and it represents a lifetime of researching and writing on the subject from a top expert in the field."—John Sayle Watterson, author of The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency

"Smith's extensively researched and well-documented text shows that throughout the history of college athletics there have been only a handful of true champions of reform and they have universally lost to the pressures of professionalization."—EH.NET
"A lively, fluid account of college sports controversies and reform efforts spanning more than 150 years. . . . Well written and thoroughly researched."—Journal of Higher Education

"Sweeping in its coverage of big-time college athletic reform and rich detail. . . . A significant contribution to the place and meaning of college sports in the modern United States."—American Historical Review
"Illuminating and thought provoking.  Music and Cultural Rights will challenge musicians, music scholars, and music educators to reexamine their preconceived notions of culture, music's purpose within culture, and the social responsibilities that come when using this music."—Music Educators Journal

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University of Illinois Press
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Sport and Society
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University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Ronald A. Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07783-8


A resort steamer, Lady of the Lake, lay on the calm waters of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, on a fine day in August 1852, while the excited passengers listened to martial music of the Concord Mechanics Brass Band. They all awaited the beginning of competition between the crews of Harvard and Yale as they took in the view of the Red Hills behind the village of Centre Harbor at the northern end of the lake. As a purely commercial venture of the newly opened Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad, the first intercollegiate athletic contest in America was secondary to the promotional wishes of what would be the dominating industrial success of the nineteenth century: the railroad industry. To James Elkins, the superintendent of the Boston to Montreal rail line, it was a business deal, and he would "pay all the bills" for an eight-day rowing vacation if Yale and Harvard athletes would agree to put on several rowing exhibitions. But to the crews of the two most prestigious institutions of higher learning in America, this was merely a "jolly lark." Following a Harvard victory over Yale, before possibly a thousand cheering spectators, including Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, a second contest scheduled for the following day was canceled due to the weather. Nevertheless, when the conditions cleared somewhat, the Harvard and Yale crews rowed on the lake "for the gratification of the townspeople." In the intervening century and a half, athletics continued to serve as a gratification for those both inside and outside institutions of higher learning. Athletics also have provided ample cause for reformers to try to bring college sports into a role complementary to the academic goals of higher education.

Although a New York City newspaper predicted that the Harvard-Yale crew meet and intercollegiate athletics in general would "make little stir in a busy world," they did just that. Nearly as soon as intercollegiate athletics were introduced, questions demanding reform arose. The first came about when Yale and Harvard renewed their athletic competition in 1855, a half-dozen years before the American Civil War. Immediately a problem arose. Harvard decided that the coxswain who led the Harvard crew to victory in 1852 would again be the leader in the boat despite having graduated two years before. He participated, and Harvard won again. The eligibility of graduates and especially graduate students would remain on the reform agenda for the next half century. Early on, most of the questions of eligibility reform were left to students to resolve, for students alone had created intercollegiate athletics, and students negotiated not only the schedules of competition but also the terms under which the competitions would be held. There were no athletic conferences at first and no national organizations, such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to determine the conditions around which the contests would be conducted.

There were only five logical groups that could reform athletics either at individual institutions or among a number of colleges in the early years. First, the students acted in their own self-interest to create competitive sports that would serve them, but they had little need of or interest in reforming what they had constructed. Second, the faculty had a direct interest in reforming athletics, because athletics came to dominate the extra curriculum of most colleges and affect the academic side of higher education during the second half of the nineteenth century. Third, presidents were often concerned about the domination of such intercollegiate sports as crew, baseball, track and field, and football in the late 1800s and the impact they had, both negative and positive, on their colleges. Fourth, governing boards, which were formed to create college policy, had a direct interest in the value of college athletics to their institutions. Fifth, graduates of institutions, who were often crucial to the financial success of colleges, had a keen interest in how athletics were used to the benefit of the institution. Reform efforts, then, could come from a variety of interest groups, but because four of the five groups were led principally by cheerleaders, not reformers, significant reforms were difficult to achieve over a century and a half.

In almost all cases, 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. Competitive equity issues have dominated reform efforts. Nearly all eligibility issues have been fought to prevent a school or schools from gaining competitive advantages on the playing field. These issues include prohibiting the participation of graduates or graduate students, setting limits on how much money an athlete may be paid to attend college, limiting the number of years a person may compete, determining what academic credentials an individual must have to be admitted to college, controlling the minimum number of credits and academic achievement an athlete must attain while attending college, and restricting the participation of an individual who transfers from one institution to another.

Over the years, reform efforts have been attempted to keep intercollegiate athletics financially solvent. Financial stress is a major reason why alumni came to dominate college athletics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and alumni continued to be a controlling factor for a number of schools into the twenty-first century. When students did not or could not finance their own contests without going into debt, to the detriment of the college image, outside forces came into play. Alumni were there to help financially, and where financial support was introduced, power over the program often came with it. Presidents and governing boards also came into the equation, generally at first to prevent financial abuses and later to use athletics for their own purposes such as advertising their institutions, bringing a virile image to colleges, raising money, and increasing enrollment.

Reform of brutal or unethical practices was not usual in college athletics, but reform of violence and unsavory practices was the principal reason for the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) during the 1905–6 crisis in football. The brutal nature of football, with a few deaths and many severe injuries, was reformed through major changes by the football rules-making body, which prevented mass-momentum plays and opened up the game with the forward pass in the years between 1906 and 1910. A half century later, the death of a University of Wisconsin boxer, Charlie Mohr, and the opinion that boxing was a brutal sport, led the NCAA to ban boxing as a championship sport in colleges. Hardly anyone referred to the banning of boxing as a reform measure, but it surely was.

Nearly always, a stated reason for reform has been to further academic integrity. Seldom has this been the primary accomplishment of reform. From early on, when a Harvard student publication admitted in 1880 that "some students come to college for the avowed purpose of engaging in athletic contests," noting that "the object of their college course is quite as much college sports as college studies," there has been a question of academic integrity in college athletics. Not much later, a Princeton athletic advisory group noted: "We all know athletic supremacy is more highly esteemed by many young men than intellectual culture, and it seems to us that the duty of the college authorities in the case of such men is to see that they maintain their standing in their studies." Yet a century later the prestigious Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report emphatically stated: "The root difficulty is not creating a 'level playing field.' It is insuring that those on the field are students as well as athletes." It was the same problem with no easy solution whether in the 1880s or the 1990s. Unfortunately for needed reforms, the Knight Commission and other reform agencies for more than a century have often pursued the wrong solution to accomplish meaningful reform.

The Knight Commission still existed well into the twenty-first century, and its solution was no more commendable or attainable as it was when the Knight Commission was established in 1989. In bold letters, the Knight Commission report of 1991 stated that its "bedrock conviction is that university presidents are the key to successful reform." "Poppycock." Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, knew better than either former presidents William C. Friday of the University of North Carolina and Theodore M. Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame, who cochaired the Knight Commission report. President Eliot, who was a senior at Harvard when the first intercollegiate contest took place on a New Hampshire lake in 1852, made a prescient comment in 1905 at the height of the most important athletic reform opportunity in higher education history. "College presidents," he said when asked to head a conference for football reform, "certainly cannot reform football, and I doubt if by themselves they can abolish it." Eliot, after three and a half decades of leading Harvard, knew that college presidents did not have the power to reform or abolish intercollegiate athletics. More than a century later, the Knight Commission and college presidents had less insight than President Eliot, though they had a century of experience from which to profit.

The Knight Commission, however, was only one of many reform units whose members believed college athletics could be reformed only by presidents. In 1905, at the same time President Eliot sagely announced that presidents could not reform football, President Schurman of Cornell declared: "Presidents have it in their power to abolish the evils of the game. All that is needed is action." Two decades later, the American College Athletics report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that "college presidents have left the shaping of athletic policies to conferences, committees, or specialists," and their lack of attention contributed to the major problems in intercollegiate athletics. A generation after the Carnegie Report, a special committee of the American Council on Education, led by Michigan State University President John Hannah, reinforced the presidential theme. "Presidents of colleges," Hannah noted, "must assume all responsibility for the conduct of athletics at their institutions." Item number one of Hannah's 1952 "Report of the Special Committee on Athletic Policy" recommendation was for presidential control of athletics and the needed reforms. Two decades later, another study by the American Council on Education reported the belief that presidents have "within their power to take corrective action." By the 1980s, the president of the American Council on Education, J. W. Peltason, described his organization as believing "in athletics, there is no substitute for presidential involvement and leadership" when raising eligibility standards and other reforms needed in college athletics. By the time of the Knight Commission report of the 1990s, little had changed. Presidents, the report stated emphatically, "are the linchpin of the reform movement."

Ten years later, as the twenty-first century moved college athletics into their third century, the Knight Commission, composed principally of college presidents, knew that its reform movement led by college presidents was a failure. Only minimal reforms had been instituted under college presidents, and things had gotten worse. The Knight Commission conducted a survey of college faculty about college athletics and then called a meeting, the Knight Commission's Faculty Summit on Intercollegiate Athletics in late 2007. If there had been any group that had been overlooked by reform presidents and other reformers, it was the faculty. Rarely since the 1800s had faculty been brought fully into the reform efforts. It is true that faculty members had been put on athletic committees, been faculty representatives to the NCAA, and served on committees dealing with athletics on university faculty senates, but they had seen nearly all power stripped from them by presidents and governing boards for more than a century. For once, the individuals who had the most to gain from having athletics meet some criteria of academic integrity on college campuses—faculty members—were listened to with some attention.

This may have occurred because faculty members nationally were beginning to move into the power equation, something that had been missing for generations. In 1999, a new faculty organization was founded, the Drake Group. Jon Ericson, a professor of rhetoric and communication studies at Drake University, decided to hold a national conference on restoring academic integrity to college athletics. From the first meeting, no consensus was attained about reform, but some of the more radical faculty reformers were energized, including William C. Dowling, a professor of literature at Rutgers; Allen Sack, a sociologist from the University of New Haven; Murray Sperber, a professor of English and American studies at Indiana; Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports studies from Ithaca College; and Andrew Zimbalist, an economist from Smith College. Larry Gerlach, a history professor at the University of Utah and an athletic reform skeptic, said after the original Drake Group meeting that faculty must be given stronger voices if reform is to succeed. The Drake Group continued to meet, to discuss and draw up reform proposals, but it showed little power to exact change.

Another faculty group, which appeared to know better the importance of power in creating athletic reform, was created out of a faculty discussion at the University of Oregon, expanded to the PAC-10 Conference, and finally spread nationally as the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA). Unlike the Drake Group, COIA was not a group of individuals who sought reform but consisted of a number of faculty senates across the nation's big-time NCAA Division I-A institutions. COIA worked with the NCAA, the Association of Governing Bodies, College Sports Project, Division I-A Faculty Athletic Representatives Association of the NCAA, Division I-A athletic directors, and the Knight Commission. After widespread consultation, COIA in 2007 constructed a white paper, "Framing the Future: Reforming Intercollegiate Athletics." Later that year, it partnered with the Knight Commission to organize a Faculty Summit on Intercollegiate Athletics. The president-led Knight Commission may have learned what President Charles Eliot believed more than a century ago: Presidents alone, especially those who are primarily cheerleaders for their own institution, cannot or will not reform athletics.

Those who have academic integrity most in mind—faculty—could be successful if given the power to act with others. That was a big if. "Faculties have not a single vote on National Collegiate Athletic Association matters," stated a former leading athletic director, Don Canham of the University of Michigan. Retired Michigan President James Duderstadt wrote a book condemning the commercialism and professionalism in big-time college sport, Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President's Perspective, after his presidency, though he accomplished little to reform his own tainted institution while he was president. When his 2000 book came out in paperback three years later, he wrote an epilogue in which he admitted: "Few contemporary university presidents have the capacity, the will, or the appetite to lead a true reform movement in college sports." He noted, however, "there is one important ally remaining that could challenge the mad rush of college sports toward the cliff of commercialism: the university faculty." After more than a century of the faculty being buried under the dictates of presidents and governing boards, their involvement appeared to be the last best hope of reforming intercollegiate athletics from within institutions of higher learning. If that were to occur, then the policies could be designed not only to create a level playing field for the competitors and result in greater financial stability, but more important the reform could bring about a greater degree of academic integrity to institutions of higher learning.


Excerpted from PAY FOR PLAY by RONALD A. SMITH Copyright © 2011 by Ronald A. Smith. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ronald A. Smith is professor emeritus of sports history at Penn State University and the author of several books, including Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics and Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big-Time College Sport.

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