Amateurism vs. Professionalism

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 4: 1930-1939. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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Battle over Definitions

Whether sports should be played for physical wellbeing, competition, recreation, and character building, or primarily for profit and the accumulation of victories has been a longstanding debate in this country since the middle of the nineteenth century. The definition of amateur has blurred, depending upon the governing rules of the sport or of the AAU and often upon the athlete in question. Sportswriter Paul Gallico defined an amateur as "a guy who won't take a check." But many amateur athletes could earn money in a variety of other ways, including endorsing products, padding expense accounts, or cashing in the gold and silver prizes they won. Many factors, including the Depression, forced officials to look the other way; but once in a while someone got caught: Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi was barred from the 1932 Olympics because he had made a small profit on his expense account during a trip to Germany. The Missouri Valley football conference questioned Jim Bausch's job selling insurance while he was playing fullback for the University of Kansas. Jesse Owens's amateur status was put in jeopardy because he accepted a patronage job as a page in the Ohio state legislature. The public cared little about these minor infractions and under-the-table dealings, but sportswriters like Gallico and John R. Tunis were often incensed at the hypocrisy of the amateur governing bodies.

Lack of Standards

Amateur sports were often sources of lucrative gate receipts, and amateur athletes usually had to practice the same long hours as professional athletes. After Bobby Jones retired in 1930, there were few pure amateur athletes in America who could compete with—and defeat—professional athletes. Amateurs were often treated like professionals, especially if they failed to live up to contractual obligations. When Jessie Owens backed out of a track-and-field engagement in Sweden, the AAU suspended him. This often forced athletes (such as Monte Irvin in 1937) to play professional sports under an assumed name so as not to jeopardize their amateur collegiate status.

College Football and Amateurism

In the 1930s the NCAA had no restrictions concerning eligibility requirements or compensation of athletes. The 1932 Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers lampooned the manner in which college football teams cavalierly recruited players, many of whom were not legitimate students. Few schools were willing to take the step Robert Maynard Hutchins did when he abolished the long-established football program at the University of Chicago in 1939. During the first College All-Star Game in 1934, in which the best major-college players challenged the NFL champions, a great defense helped the amateurs blank the NFL Chicago Bears in a scoreless tie. As late as 1950, Army head coach Red Blaik was still convinced that college football was truer sport than professional football.


Paul Gallico, Farewell to Sport (New York: Knopf, 1938).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468301369