Does Amateurism Still Exist in Modern Sports?

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

Friday Night Tykes takes youthful competition to a whole new level

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.

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3 comments

  1. rconybeare · October 19, 2014

    I completely agree with you: amateur sports are not what they used to be. Competition is in every aspect of every sport, no matter what age or level. Dunning describes amateurism as “fun and noncompetitive”, but he also wrote that that amateur athletes do not get paid. So in this case, amateur sports and athletes do still exist–from eight-year-olds to college athletes. But which aspect of amateur sport is more important?

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  2. nicolesigmon · October 20, 2014

    I agree with what you’re saying about the growing seriousness and competitiveness of amateur sports but don’t necessarily agree when you say that that seriousness/competitiveness is taking away from the fun of the game. People take intramural sports here at U of M seriously and strive to win, but everyone I know that competes on intramural teams does so because they love the sport and want to play it as much as possible. There’s no real gain to winning except having fun and feeling proud of yourself. I guess I see your examples of Friday Night Tykes and Jalen Rose’s statements as being more outliers than the general picture, if that makes sense.

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  3. lbongi · October 21, 2014

    I think the definition of amateur is flawed. In my opinion, there should be three distinct divisions of play: 1. Professional – The most obvious, these are the athletes who compete at the highest possible level, receive compensation, and consider it their career. 2. Amateur – These are the athletes still seeking high level of competition, either to fill the emptiness they have without competition, or with the intent of advancing to a professional level. 3. Recreational – These are the athletes who play simply for the love of the game; the weekend warriors if you will. These are the 8 year olds who don’t know if they want to continue competing at an amateur level down the road, and for those who are playing in rec leagues, beer leagues, etc. With these 3 distinctions, there is certainly room for amateurism in modern sports. Think of the college athletes, amateur golfers, etc. It is a developmental system, rather than a distinction. To be an amateur means you still have a fire in your heart, and desire to compete. I like where you took your post, and I believe you have a similar viewpoint as me. I don’t think you can classify 8 year olds and college athletes the same way, and therefore, that 3rd distinction of recreational athlete is necessary.

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