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  • Play for Pay: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform by Ronald A. Smith
  • Pellom McDaniels III
Smith, Ronald A. Play for Pay: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. xii+344. Introduction, notes, bibliography, and index. $30 pb.

When will we admit that some college sports are professional in structure and in practice? Indeed, numerous college football teams with their futuristic, battle armor-like or retro uniform designs have become walking—no, running—advertisements for shoe and apparel companies that are making hundreds of millions of dollars from the branding. Basketball and football coaches command salaries relatively equal to CEOs of corporations while, sadly, their student-athletes struggle to have enough to eat in season and out of season. Finally, the graduation rates for student-athletes at some universities and colleges are so abysmally low that the only way the institutions justify their continued ability to compete is to claim that they are providing an opportunity to student-athletes who need to take responsibility for their own education. This may be true. However, when class choices are limited based on practice schedules, mandatory meetings, and other “important” obligations, which carve into study time, education is not promoted as the most important aspect of their college career. To be sure, this is not anything new. [End Page 567]

In Ronald A. Smith’s Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reforms, he examines the history of intercollegiate sports and the various periods of reform beginning in the nineteenth century and ending in the present day. What started as a fraternal activity between young men in various years of matriculation at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, athletic competitions in rowing, baseball, and football became signifiers for courage, manliness, and class differences. “Because students originated these contests” Smith argues, “they created the rules to level the playing field between the contestants, without giving any thought to any academic integrity issues that participating in these contests might create” (p. 9). These competitions eventually evolved into intercollegiate competitions between institutions, which accelerated the popularity of sports spectacles and the numerous meanings and definitions associated with winning and losing. Specifically, as the popularity of the game of football increased in the late nineteenth century, faculty and university officials sought to regulate the extracurricular and intramural activities of the athletes and the spectators consumed with viewing the contests between rivals.

According to Smith, alumni interests, boosterism, and a lack of regulation threatened to ruin not only the young men involved in the sporting contests but the student supporters who traveled to the games, missed classes, and spent too much time in a “variety of activities thought to be harmful to moral character, learning and safety” (p. 17). What is more, the lack of regulation in who was able to participate as athletes created discrepancies in age, ability, and intent, which led to some of the most brutal displays of play under the banner of competition. Smith’s research on the early decisions made by university presidents to support athletics as an opportunity to provide their respective institutions with national attention was undermined by faculty choosing to push back against the administration in an effort to reform campus sports as well as to protect the student body from prolonged abuse. Nonetheless, the decision of some university presidents to pursue the prestige associated with big-time athletics confused the ideals of amateur sports that were believed to assist in the character development of students. However, the allure of creating a spectacle that could generate publicity and establish a particular university as a destination for potential students seduced numerous officials into turning a blind eye towards episodes of impropriety and exploitation. According to Smith, this lack of civility promoted by university officials towards a portion of the student body came under protest by concerned faculty members, who realized something had to be done to protect students from becoming commodified athletes.

In Pay for Play, Smith links the development of college sports with the expansion of the market for sports as grand spectacles in American society. He explores the use of legislation for women and girls to...


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pp. 567-569
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