Amateurism On and Off the Field

Once while I was dean of the College, Harvard apologized to the NCAA because a student parked overnight at the Dillon Field House. A nordic skier had left his old minivan at Soldiers Field so he could ferry his team to practice early the next morning.

Harvard’s transgression? It had given the athlete a benefit of tangible value (one night’s parking in a deserted lot) not provided to other students. Had the student not repaid us, the NCAA could have declared him a professional.

“Professional” is a dirty word in college athletics. Being an “amateur” is as good a thing as being “professional” is bad. But the technicalities can be absurd. If your parents can afford to send you to sports camps every summer, you remain an amateur. You can win the gold medal for your country and the NCAA championship for your college and still be an amateur. But if you join your Olympic teammates on the Wheaties box, you instantly become a professional. That is why some 1998 U.S. women’s ice hockey Olympians were not in the Wheaties photo: appearing—even with no money changing hands—would have rendered them ineligible to compete again for Harvard.

Amateurism is supposed to preserve a classical ideal of disinterested athleticism untainted by money. It supposedly levels the playing field, advantaging no competitor by athletic income or commercial interest. Neither justification holds water. The ancient Greek athletes, revered as ideals of human excellence, received huge sums for their victories. And regulations about parking lots and cereal boxes do not redress grave financial disparities in athletic opportunity.

The British aristocracy invented amateurism in the nineteenth century. When the working classes began to have enough leisure time to take up sports, the upper classes drafted the amateurism rules to segregate themselves. The original British rules of 1868 had the now-familiar prohibitions against competing for pay or prize money. But just in case some member of the lower classes might become athletically expert while avoiding such rewards, the rules also bluntly excluded any “mechanic, artisan or labourer.” Harvard’s President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, helped import the amateurism rules to the U.S. The American college rules omitted language about social class, but they have always advantaged the wealthy over the poor.

College athletes are today disparaged as “professionals” even if they don’t violate the compensation technicalities. If they train hard to become skilled, they are dismissed as “pros.” Being a good athlete is fine, but there is something wrong with becoming a very good athlete. Superb Harvard athletes are suspected of not being what former Princeton president William G. Bowen calls “regular students” in “Reclaiming the Game,” his indictment of intercollegiate athletics at selective colleges. It is another piece of our aristocratic athletic heritage to pretend that true athletes, amateur athletes, are dispassionate about their sports and uninterested in perfecting their skills. In reality, athletic excellence is a thing of beauty and grace. Its devoted pursuit can dignify the athlete and inspire the observer. Instead, our athletes are objects of economic discrimination and public contempt that would not be tolerated if directed against any other group of students. They are the last students who can be openly stereotyped without protest from the student body or the University.

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The disparagement of “professional” expertise bleeds into the academic world. The conclusions of Harvard’s ongoing curricular review presume that the pursuit of expertise is a pathology Harvard must help undergraduates resist. The 2004 report identified “specialization” and “professionalization” as problems of higher education today. These dangers motivate the proposals now being implemented: delayed concentration choice, which makes concentration programs less deep; incentives for secondary fields; and discouragement of honors programs. Money is dirty: Students preparing for law, medicine, or business—including many athletes—are treated as outside the liberal arts tradition. Yet the new curricular proposals sustain that great intellectual tradition in name only. The gentleman amateur, dilettantish and unmoved by the financial exigencies of real life, is the ideal student of Harvard’s new curriculum.

The curricular review reports present no evidence that Harvard students are too narrowly educated or are becoming overspecialized. In fact, our broadly educated students welcome the challenge to compete at the highest level of their academic specialties. Those passionate ambitions seem strongest in our hungriest students, the ones eager to transcend the social and economic disadvantages to which they were born. They seek excellence because they seek success, and they welcome disciplined training that guides them toward those goals.

Harvard’s educational framework descended from the days when Oxford and Cambridge certified the British aristocracy for lives of inherited wealth. A real curricular review in today’s socio-economically diverse and distinctively American Harvard would have encouraged students to achieve their best rather than enjoy dumbed-down requirements. In the classroom as on the field, Harvard should find pride rather than shame in students’ ambition for expertise, and should shape rather than suppress their competitive spirit.

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Harvard College Professor. He served as dean of the College from 1995-2003. This op-ed is based on his forthcoming book, “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education” published by PublicAffairs.