The English sporting amateur

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.

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2 Responses to The English sporting amateur

  1. Alex Robak says:

    Yes, I think that sport should be more social instead of like this. Nowadays footballers are paid too much cash and they travel where the money is rather than doing the sport for his respected team. The Olympics should make a start to this and say that only non pros can take part in them. Like for Rio 2016. Like if you think likewise.

  2. Pingback: The British success at the Rio Olympics should be no surprise | England calling

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