Written by: Katrina M. Smith, MBA
Date: January 31, 2013
What do you do when the laws of the land become outdated and the rulers who enforce these laws refuse to acknowledge this change in order to preserve the old guard? History has shown that those astute to this change have risen in protest spreading awareness to all those negatively impacted by old world fundamentalism. The collective efforts of advocates most often results in Revolution-mass movements recognizing the need to fundamentally upgrade systems, practices, and constructs affecting societal behavior, philosophy, and government to reflect the changing world.
Why talk about revolution in a track & field blog? Well, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every generation needs a new revolution,” in order to progress and fulfill ideals projected by each generation. The 21st Century ushered in a new generation of athletes. Thanks to the phenomenal athletic and business efforts of athletes such as Michael Jordan, A-Rod, Magic Johnson, and David Beckham, the new generation has come to understand that Athletics at the elite level is a Profession, not a hobby. Now, when this same generation looks at track & field and views the rules governing the sport, their understanding is suddenly confounded.
Allow me to explain.
Many of the rules governing the sport still favor amateurism over professionalism. I say “still” because the rules were written at a time when amateurism reigned as the supreme doctrine of sport. Take a moment one day and look back through time. Back, back, way back to the 1880s. There, you will find a great and noble man named William Buckingham Curtis also known as THE FATHER OF AMATEURISM. This is the guy who established an organization called the Amateur Athletic Union. To establish this association, Curtis wrote a set of rules reflecting his views on sport, socioeconomics, and well…the ideologies of his class. If you recall, economist Thornstein Veblan explained sports as an unproductive demonstration of status and wealth already attained through productive professions. (See past blog). Translation: Sport then was (and still is in many ways) regarded as a leisure activity reserved for the upper-class. This activity was designed to flaunt social status. Sport, at the time the AAU was established, was not a socially acceptable means to acquire wealth. For athletes to demand compensation for engaging in an “unproductive” or leisure activity was frowned upon and greatly discouraged. Curtis shared these sentiments like most noblemen of his time. The rules he wrote reflected this ideology and defined the infrastructure of many sports including track & field. Consequentially, track & field can be said to be a sport originally designed for nobility.
Let’s now speed up time and look at the 1960s. By the 1960s, the participants in track & field in the US had changed. Track was made available to people of all classes, races, and sexes. Although track grew in diversity, the rules of the game still reflected the philosophies of 19th century aristocracy. Amateurism was a belief strongly upheld by governing bodies under the direction of leaders such as Avery Brundage. The well-to-do Brundage fought to preserve the ideals of amateurism to…well…exclude non-noblemen (to put it extremely mildly). The rules they upheld were not adapted to the socially changing world. Consequently, many athletes who had not yet acquired wealth through “productive professions,” had to begin thinking about turning track into a profession in order to finance their athletic pursuits. The time and costs it took to train, fuel, and compete would impact their pockets. Unfortunately, emerging governing bodies that adopted AAU rules as their own would make it difficult…That plus the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. Just look at the stories of Wilma Rudolph, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans and other athletes of the 1960s, 70s, 80s…
Today, the philosophies of Curtis and his 19th century associates can still be read to some degree in the rulebooks. The definition of amateurism has changed a bit to include people of all classes but the idea of sports for leisure, sports for fun still remains. For athletes who wish to make a career out of track & field, this philosophy impacts their livelihood. To accommodate career level athletes, a change must be made. Rules must be added to support the purity of professionalism. As history shows, this change will not come easy. As long as governance values amateurism over professionalism, many competitors will struggle to start, keep, and build a career in track…and if the athlete struggles, the sport struggles.
So, perhaps the track & field world should follow the advice of President Jefferson. A little revolution is good every now and then. Amateurism is fine and has its place, but so does professionalism. In order to progress and grow as a sport, rules must be updated and reassessed to determine how they impact the athlete especially if there’s athletes who wish to have a real career as a professional. Given recent events with pro-runners fighting to gain visibility, marketing opportunities, contracts, etc, the governing bodies can no longer take an, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach to managing the sport. It’s time for an upgrade.