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Amateurism is Overdone

The issue of amateur vs. professional sports is not a new one. On June 1, 1926 Damon Runyon had thoughts on the subject. More than 75 years ago and more than a decade after the Jim Thorpe controversy, Runyon’s insight is still relevant today.

“That’s the way with life in general. Many a big man gets away with violations of ethics and codes and even LAWS that would land a fellow of less importance in jail. So rarely is a really big fellow hooked that he gets fat headlines in the newspapers, while the little chap is dismissed with a couple of lines.”

“The trouble with amateurism nowadays is that it is surrounded by too much hypocrisy—this hypocrisy produced by the amateur authorities themselves.

“I have in mind as a specific instance the tour of Nurmi [Pavel Nurmi, Olympic Gold Medal winner], the great Finnish runner, who was supposed to be barnstorming the country, running himself bowlegged merely for his expenses and the glory of amateur sport.

“Now I doubt that many persons in America who are familiar with sport believe that Nurmi did his running without other reward. It is understood that he departed these shores with a fairish bankroll, and while his remunerations may have been placed under the head of expenses or something else, it is none the less pay.

“What is more, the average, fair-minded American, however zealous he may be in his devotion to amateurism, will probably agree that Nurmi would have been what we call a ‘sap’ to have done all that galloping without reward.

“Everybody wanted to see him, everybody was willing to pay to see him, and had the customers been deprived of a view of one of the wonder athletes of all time just because he wasn’t a simon-pure amateur, they would have been vastly aggrieved.

“I always thought one of the silliest actions of the amateur authorities was the disqualification as an amateur of Jim Thorpe, the Indian, after his triumphs in the Olympic games, just because it was discovered that some years prior to that Jim had been playing professional baseball down south.

“His baseball playing didn’t give him any part of the prowess he displayed in the Olympics, that’s a sure thing. And it is equally sure that his athletic prowess didn’t contribute to his ability as a baseball player.

“He played baseball because he needed money. He competed in the Olympics for glory. I might add, too, that he brought more athletic glory to American amateur athletics than any other individual that ever lived. His reward was the brand of professional, and the stripping from him of the medals and other little trophies he had won in the amateur field.

“If you think the actions of the amateur authorities made any difference to the American public, you are mistaken. Thorpe was immediately signed as a baseball player by John J. McGraw of the New York Giants and was a tremendous gate attraction.

“I have often read in the public prints that Thorpe was a failure as a baseball player. If remaining in the big leagues eight or ten years is failure, then he failed. Personally I would call him something of a success, though he wasn’t the sensation in baseball that he was in the football field and as an all round athlete.”

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