Top class sport is now so tied to money that it may seem quaint to his generation that for all of the nineteenth century and much of twentieth century the amateur played a major role in many of the more popular sports. This was due to the fact that most major sports originated in England, where the spirit of amateurism was very strong, and these became spread across the globe when Britain had the only world empire worthy of the name and was also the most industrial advanced and economically powerful state in the world. Other nations who took up the games had a natural inclination to imitate the English way in sport, because of where the games originated and because of England’s prominent position in the world.
There was also a strong class element. This was a time when class and status was still very much an issue throughout Europe and those parts of the world which were within the British Empire. Nor was the United States immune to the lure of class. As the amateur was associated with being a gentleman and a professional classed as a working man, it suited the better-off to support the distinction. It also provided in some games, especially cricket, the means by which, in even a very socially stratified society, people of very different social status could play together.
But there was more to it than that. The English elite of the 19th century was in thrall to an idealised version of the ancient world and from this came the prime amateur ideals of doing something praiseworthy for its own sake and behaving honourably in the observance of not only the laws but the spirit of a game.
Football, cricket and golf had professionals from their early days as public spectacles, but even within games those the amateur had a long run. Other major sports such as athletics, tennis and rugby union remained in theory at least amateur until well into the latter half of the twentieth century, although shamateurism, the paying of amateurs illicitly through devices such as inflated expenses or salaries for on-sporting jobs which were never actually performed, tainted most ajor sports. But even though this dishonesty went on there were still many genuine amateurs in top class sport until quite recent times. It is also true that the shamateurs were paid minute sums compared with the vast amounts many openly professional sportsmen get today.
The amateur had a prominent playing role partly because it was the upper and middle classes who developed and ran modern sport. Even the archetypal working class game, Association football, had at its foundations the public schools and innumerable worthies from the gentry and mercantile classes who founded many of the clubs which are now household names. The true amateur was also cheap because at worst he drew only expenses (shamateurs were a different kettle of fish, often being considerably more expensive to employ than an official pro).
But there was more to amateurism in top class sport than simple class dominance and cheapness. The middle and upper classes brought with them a rather noble ethos. Being an amateur was more than just being person who played without being paid. Games were seen having a moral purpose in the building of character. Team sports taught the individual to subordinate their own interests to that of the group, while individual competition forced a boy to confront their personal responsibility. Playing for its own sake was something pure, untainted by the crudity of commercialism.
That the amateur ethos was always battling with the vagaries of human nature which in many people invariably seeks to gain advantage unfairly is neither here nor there. The important thing is the existence of the ideal. Like most noble ideals it was followed to some degree and behaviour during play was as a general rule rather more sporting thanit is in a purely professional game. Moreover, even where a sport became at a fairly early stage overwhelmingly professional on the playing side, as was the case of football, the existence of people with the amateur spirit administering and controlling the game meant their mentality was reflected in the way professionals behaved – a prowho did otherwise would risk the end of his career. This was important because the behaviour of everyone who plays or watches a sport is influenced by the behaviour of those at the top.
The true amateur was also thought to bring a spirt of adventure to top class sport because he was not weighed down by the thought that he must perform if his employment in the sport was to continue. This was one of the most powerful arguments cited in support of the amateur captain in county cricket. It had a certain force to it.
I regret the virtual extinction of the amateur in the popular top level sports. In my ideal world all sport would be amateur. There is something constricting about all-professional sport. Players do have to consider the next contract. They do have to consider their performance if they wish to move to a bigger club or take part in international sport. The talented sportsman who is not a professional is simply excluded. Such a person may simply not be able to gain a professional opportunity or he may simply not want to be a full time professional sportsman. Either way he is lost to the top level of his sport. Cricket in particular has suffered from the abolition of theamateur/professional distinction, with few if any players who are not contracted to a county club having any chance to play for the county. Professional sport has too much of the closed shop about it to be healthy.
Attached to amateur ideal was that of the “allrounder”. For the gentleman the ideal was the scholar athlete, an ideal approached most famously by the Victorian Charles Burgess Fry, who won a classics scholarship to Oxford, set the world long jump record whilst there, obtained Blues for cricket, football, rugby and athletics and went on to play cricket and football for England.
But there was also a professional niche as a sporting allrounder. Many famous footballers played cricket professionally and many famous cricketers, football, perhaps most notably Denis Compton who played cricket for Middlesex and England while spending his winters from cricket tours speeding down the left wing for Arsenal. Sadly, the extension of the football season to ten months of the year has killed the professional footballer/cricketer. Phil Neal who batted for Worcestershire and played left back for Lincoln City in the 1970s and 1980s was the last of the breed.