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The level of professionalism within sports relates to status behaviors associated with the formulation of class and social groups within sports and is affected by the following:
■ Eligibility criteria and status traditionally associated with sports
■ Moral ambiguity
■ Amount of commercialism
■ Development and change within the historical context
In current notions of sports eligibility, merit often defines status, although not in every national, social, or sporting context. There is a significant degree of difference when comparing the practicalities related to professionalism. What further complicates this is that over time the emphasis on elements of eligibility has changed.
What Is Professionalism?
Amateurism and the notion of the “gentleman” in sport became important at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in Britain and the United States. The Henley-on-Thames Rowing Regatta was an annual event that was patronized by the moneyed (or amateur) classes. The Henley Rowing Stewards were charged with ensuring the amateur and social standards of the event were upheld. The role of the Henley Rowing Regatta Stewards and the definition of eligibility criteria at the Olympic Games were crucial in separating notions of what constituted amateurism and, by extension, professionalism. The traditional notion of amateurism can be summarized in the following quotation:
An amateur oarsman or sculler must be an officer of her Majesty’s Army, or Navy or Civil Service, a member of the Liberal professions, or of the Universities or Public Schools, or of any established boat or rowing club not containing mechanics or professionals; and must not have competed in any competition for either a stake, or money or entrance fee, or with or against a professional for any prize; nor have ever taught, pursued, or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises of any kind as a means of livelihood, nor have been employed in or about boats, or in manual labour; nor be a mechanic, artisan or labourer. (Lowerson 1995,159)
In current usage, the term professional often acts as a compliment, although the specific use of the term can provide insights into the changing position of the professional within society. For example, golf retains some moral values and qualities related to amateurism while remaining openly professional in organization.
The primarily English notion of the “gentlemen amateur” influenced the traditional Olympic notion of eligibility and, particularly, the status as described in the preceding quotation. The associations with the lofty ideals of muscular Christianity and the cult of athleticism developed within the English public schools during the late nineteenth century. The ongoing situation regarding the status and eligibility of athletes and performers was significant, in the sense that any infringements of the amateur code and its associated values usually resulted in banishment from competition. This was generally part of a haphazard process that emphasized the desirable aspects of getting involved in sport and doing so for the love of the game itself rather than for any particular result or reward that may accrue. These values became subject to change and adaptation at an increasing rate, especially as capitalism began to dominate the political economy of sport. As different sports federations began to establish their own eligibility criteria, however, inconsistencies and problems became obvious.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) attempts to control this issue were not always successful. Certain Olympic presidents have been notable in their stances regarding the eligibility criteria within world sports.
■ The founder of the modern Olympic Games and first hands-on president of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, viewed sport as an end in itself. He believed that a person could not want more reward than to be able to participate in friendly and constructive competition within sports. This Corinthian ideal has looked increasingly dated once the different practices within affiliated nations became known, particularly following World War II.
■ The American Avery Brundage, who served as IOC president from 1952 to 1972, was staunchly conservative in his views related to relaxing the amateur eligibility criteria. He even banned athletes for displaying sports logos on their clothing at the 1972 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan. Brundage was a controversial figure because he displayed little flexibility in seeking to keep professionalism out of the games.
The situation regarding professionalism in different nations is directly related to how early in their histories each nation’s sporting structure incorporated an openly commercial emphasis. The precursor to open acceptance of a professional emphasis is the development of a commercial dynamic within the sporting context. Each sport has been influenced by professionalism in very different ways; for a significant number of sports and activities, professionalism is not an issue because they have not developed commercially orientated structures. Comparing fencing, archery, and rile shooting with the more high-profile professional sports such as tennis, baseball, and football shows that the former activities have not developed a commercially dynamic structure. This has been affected by the level of television and media coverage different sports enjoy and, in turn, has precluded some sports from developing professionalism. The quadrennial Olympic Games remain the pinnacle for those sports that have not yet developed a commercial emphasis.
Current terminology suggests that something described as amateurish denotes that it is lawed or has obvious deficiencies. Notably, within sports reference it is occasionally made to a “model” professional, which refers to a talented player or competitor whose conduct on and off the field its desirable values within society, invariably including fairness and politeness. Furthermore, reference is often made to the “professional foul” where cheating occurs in the interests of one’s team. The inference is that the professional foul is not something likely seen from a model professional. However, we should guard against transposing the situation at the elite level of sports to all those who participate in and clearly enjoy their sports. For many fans and occasional players, the act of competing is still the main pleasure of sports. Sports provide a means of detaching and distancing ourselves from the workplace and its environment.
As sports performers participate in an event where revenues are generated, it is only a short step for them to demand recompense because those revenues depend on their involvement in the sport or activity. The process of change and adaptation within sports has been a slow yet inexorable one overall; however, the rate and acceptance of change has varied for different sports. In rugby, the split between the northern English clubs and the southern English clubs in 1895 led to the formation of two distinct sporting forms: a union of amateurs and a league of professionals. The eligibility criteria imposed by the southern amateurs were so strict that even playing on a rugby league pitch could lead to banishment from the union game. Given the fractured nature of class relations in late nineteenth century England, it is not surprising that attitudes hardened on both sides.
Notably, almost 100 years following the split, the amateurs of the Rugby Union decided to open their sport and allowed professionals both on and off the field. There has since been an increasing amount of cross-fertilization between the codes. The importance of this example, however, relates to the timescale involved.
The exact relationship between the notion of professionalism and the development of commercialism within sports can be seen in the growth of professional organizations within the sports context. This process can be best described as the professionalization of the sporting structure. Many believe that amateurism within sports is still desirable. This is evident within the Olympic context, where the authorities still relate some of the robust and worthy qualities associated with amateurism to the ongoing Olympics project, even though the term amateur was officially removed from the Olympic Charter in 1972.
Professionalism as a concept that affects the sporting context was first developed during the early stages of commodification and codification of sports in the United States. The team owners and governing bodies were quick to emphasize the business and commercial aspects of sport, but professional players in the main team sports have only had a significant role in controlling their careers since the early 1970s. The anachronistic position of the reserve system was partly perpetuated by the antitrust exemption enjoyed by professional sports and by the paternalist position of many sports franchise owners. The development of sports as an integral part of U.S. culture (as well as the association of particular sports and pastimes with notions of American citizenship) gathered momentum following World War I.
The legal position of professionals in individual sports differs depending on the activity and even, on occasion, between athletes in the same sport. Their legal status often depends on what athletes must do to train and qualify for competition in their sports. This can depend on individuals such as a manager or promoter in boxing or membership in a professional organization that restricts eligibility such as in golf or tennis. Professional sports make some pretensions to the notion of what constitutes professionalism within the wider society, with coaching certificates and a distinct language of technicality. As a distinct cash-flow dynamic develops, there is more open acceptance of commercial structures within sports. The lack of reverence associated with professionalism develops because the activity and its outcome are not ends in themselves. Traditionally, people are fearful of commercialism within sports because of an implicit belief that commercialism has the capacity to infect and destroy those institutions in which commercialism has become increasingly central to their culture.
The centrality of gambling within East Asian sports places the commercial dynamic at the center of why sports are popular. The increased injuries in the Rugby Union since 1995 provide an interesting example of how this shift can have a detrimental effect on the practicalities of sport. Rugby World magazine has estimated that the incidence of incapacitating injuries in the English Rugby Union has risen fivefold since the open acceptance of professionalism. Current research suggests that a player’s livelihood can be affected adversely by not performing to a given standard. The implication is that a more professional emphasis in sports directly affects the practicalities of the sport itself. This example has significant implications for the players and the clubs, and, it can be argued, affects the ability of the sport to provide a spectacular product for the fans and spectators on television. Jonny Wilkinson’s ongoing absence from England’s international rugby team because of a recurring shoulder injury illustrates this issue. Of great concern is the reaction and attitude of younger, developing athletes because they must determine for themselves what is acceptable.
Including professional athletes in the Olympic Games provides noteworthy examples. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, the U.S. basketball “Dream Team,” which included Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, signaled the end of amateurism as a philosophy influencing Olympic eligibility criteria. Notably, and rather predictably in this instance, the competition was little more than a procession toward the gold medal for the U.S. basketball team. However, the concessions made to tennis professionals at Barcelona meant that the quality of competition improved significantly, which the media coverage reflected.
There are still differences in the practice of professionalism, with specific governing bodies of each sport determining their own rules and regulations. Although greater regulatory consistency within sports will remain an issue, it is not the biggest issue in this area. The status issue that underpins this topic and the significant influence of social control between the diverse groups within the sports context directly influence the development of amateur and professional practices. In many ways, the uneven distribution of revenues associated with professional sports forces a decline in the unpredictability of outcomes. This uncertainty remains vital to the success of sports and crucial to the revenues that sustain them. Without a broad range of uncertain outcomes, sports become predictable. The role of the amateur in sports is still significant, if only to provide some form of perceived moral strength and legitimacy for those professionals who, by implication, may have lost their moral direction and sense of sportsmanship.
Professionalism within sports remains only a minor dimension in the decline of amateurism, especially com-pared with the more comprehensive opposing force of commercialism. Significant differences between national cultures usually affect those values related to sport. The professional emphasis in sports has led to increasing specialization by athletes. The downside of commercialism, and the attendant concentration of revenues at the peak of sports, means that to achieve success and access the associated rewards, some participants may consider trying to enhance their performances by resorting to illegal means. The effect of such professionalism on the actual daily practice of sports varies. Yet, the influence of professionalism on sport is largely negligible— most participants will continue to remain involved because of their love of the game.
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