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  • Michael Doolittle

Sports in colleges: same as it ever was

Today we read about the recommendations of former Secratary of State Condoleeza Rice, who was asked by the NCAA to chair a Commission on College Basketball. The NCAA formed the commission in reaction to an FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball and recruiting where apparel companies and players agents paid coaches and player or their families to ensure that coveted athletes signed with schools that had contracts with the companies. The commission blamed coaches, assistants, agents, and even university presidents. In a press conference, Rice said that "We need to put the college back in college basketball."


One thing is almost certain-- this reform effort, like the numerous reform efforts initiated by university presidents, athletes, coaches, conferences and the NCAA over the last 150 years, will not work.


Ever since Harvard and Yale adopted sports from Oxford and Cambridge in the 1850s, college sports have not lived up the ideals of amateurism currently espoused by the NCAA.


Pennsylvania State History Professor Ronald Smith looked at how sports became tightly wound into American colleges in his book Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics. "From the first contest, intercollegiate sport has been a commercial enterprise, and professionalism followed closely on its heels." Smith shows how Harvard and Yale created the conflicted system that we have today.


The first intercollegiate contest, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale in August of 1852 was the brainchild of railroad magnate James Elkin. Elkin was interested in marketing his new railway line between Boston and Montreal. He made a proposition to Yale junior James Whiton, a member of the Yale Boat Club-- if you "will get up a regatta on the Lake (Winnipesaukee) between Yale and Harvard, I will pay all the bills." By all accounts, the rowers enjoyed the 8 day all expenses paid trip and Harvard won the first race.


In 1855, Harvard and Yale had a rematch, and Harvard won again. Yale students immediately protested, complaining that the Harvard coxswain, who had coxed the team to victory in 1852, had graduated two years previous, and shouldn't have been allowed to race.


So the very first two intercollegiate contests both would be violations of current NCAA rules. The first for the open commercial sponsorship and the second for eligibility reasons.

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