Calvin Johnson uses his 6-foot-5 inch frame and 4.35 40 yard dash speed to bully defenders with his physical prowess before launching into the air with his 43 inch vertical to haul in the ball thrown in a tightly-knit spiral. We play two hand touch on makeshift playgrounds or fields. Clayton Kershaw blows 95 mph fastballs with pin-point accuracy by batter before freezing them with an curveball that breaks almost 12 inches. We lob softballs to the aluminum-bat wielding hitter from 45 feet away.
There is a difference between professional and amateur sports, the most obvious being the discrepancy in skill level. Sociologist Eric Dunning, in fact, hypothesizes that the creation of amateur sports were was a reaction to the growing seriousness and competitiveness of sports. We couldn’t compete with the physical skill of athletes like the modern-day Calvin Johnson or Clayton Kershaw, so we created a different ideology, the amateur ethos.
The amateur ethos, as Dunning describes it in his essay The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement-Striving and the Social Significance of Sport, centers around the ideal of playing sports “for fun”. It also stresses fair play and adherence to the rules; they exist for the sake of pleasure and should primarily be a leisure activity. And while this idea certainly exists in pick-up football or softball with the buddies, a new question has formed: does amateur ethos still exist in the realm of organized athletics?
In modern terms, athletes who aren’t being paid for their performance are considered amateurs. Every level from an 8 year old league up to the college game is considered an amateur level. But sports that exist now don’t follow the same “amateur” idea that Dunning had described. The idea that sports are fun-oriented and motivated by pleasure no longer applies to amateur sports. Friday Night Tykes, a new reality TV show that depicts 8 and 9 year old kids as exocet missiles and mini-fighting machines, explores the new belief that sports at all levels no longer include the “for fun” aspect and instead are
driven by success and advancement to the next level. The teams in the show have abandoned the idea that amateur sports should be played for the enjoyment of the athletes and instead instill a battle-like mentality into the kids. Organized sports, even at the lowest level, are driven by competition and are becoming increasingly serious, contrary to Dunning’s belief that amateur sports are driven by pleasure.
This notion is the most clear at the college level. College athletes put in the same amount of time and effort into their sports as professionals, receive similar amounts of recognition for their achievements as professionals, yet are considered amateur athletes. As Jalen Rose, former NBA player and member of Michigan’s “Fab Five” basketball team, said in ESPN’s 30 for 30 Fab Five documentary, ” [Playing basketball at Michigan] made us feel like pros, it didn’t make us feel like college kids.” Rose and the rest of the Fab Five weren’t simply able to just go out and have fun; they faced this sense of pressure to perform and dominate every single game they played. The obsessive media attention, the numerous ticket and merchandise sales, and the fanatical fan bases didn’t exactly scream “leisurely activity”. The same idea still endures today. College games can’t be considered leisurely when the NCAA stands to make $912 million as a result of these competitions.
There is a lot of debate currently on whether or not college athletes should be paid given their present status as amateurs. While there is room for debate in the pay-for-play aspect, no one can cling to the notion that college athletics are supposed to be played “for fun” when betting lines exist for these games! People can bet on games that, by definition, are supposed to be primarily focused on leisure, proving that the amateur ethos that Dunning describes cannot be applied to modern organized sports, where so-called “amateur” sports have significantly evolved.