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The approach to the playing of sport that insisted that the game must be played for love rather than money (from the Latin, ‘to love’), and according to a particular code of behaviour and conduct. Early definitions of amateurism in later 19th-century Britain—the earliest was related to athletics, in 1866—were as much about exclusion, and forbade anyone who had accepted a prize in competition, or money, or had taught sport for remuneration, ‘or is a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ from participating in amateur events or joining an amateur association. The claims made on behalf of amateurism were articulated in many sports. Eustace Miles (Let's Play the Game: The Anglo-Saxon Sporting Spirit, 1904) claimed that cricket could illustrate eleven lessons for life: ‘such valuable ideas as co-operation, division of labour, specialisation, obedience to a single organiser (perhaps with a council to advise him), national character, geography and its influences, arts and artistic anatomy, physiology and hygiene, ethics, and even—if the play can be learnt rightly—general educational methods’. Tony Mason (Association Football and English Society, 1863–1915, 1980) documents the arguments used by the amateur opponents of the professionalization of football (soccer): the nature of a voluntary leisure activity would be corrupted by turning it into a business; professionalism would undermine the survival of all but larger, wealthier clubs and so threaten local rivalries; professionalism would destroy amateurism because the latter would not be able to compete on equal terms; professionalism would produce an overemphasis on winning at any cost; the football professional was not really a ‘professor’ at all, having no teaching responsibilities.

The middle classes sought to defend the amateur code because it was ‘good for the physique. It helped to build character, it perhaps led to diminution in drinking, it brought the classes together’, wrote Mason. Some of these defences generated passionate responses. E. Ensor wrote, in ‘The Football Madness’ in Contemporary Review (November 1899), condemning the ‘mighty influence’ of the emerging professional form of football, and calling the competitive professional form ‘thoroughly evil’, its recruitment processes ‘savouring of bribery and corruption’. Loretto school head H. H. Almond talked of the ‘accursed money element’ that threatened the sport of football: ‘The football scrimmage is a great educator’ that can ‘foster that virtue which is most closely allied to purity, and without which no nation can be either great or truly prosperous; viz. the virtue of courage’ (Nineteenth Century, 34, December 1993).

Definitions of the amateur were not all as explicitly excluding as the 1866 athletics one, but the amateur code was without doubt an expression of the privilege and dominance of a social class. Richard Holt, in an essay on ‘Cricket and Englishness: The batsman as hero’ (International Journal of the History of Sport, 1996), wrote of the amateur ideal which in its full-blown form combined ‘older notions of honour and chivalry with an evangelical belief in the purity and moral purpose of competition and physical endeavour’. Amateurism's influence was long-term and widespread, the International Olympic Committee not abolishing its insistence that Olympic athletes must be amateur until into the 1980s. Lincoln Allison (Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence, 2001) has discussed the currency and applicability of the spirit of amateurism in the contemporary sporting world: he postulates the survival of a sporting culture not on any basis of class or privilege, but in a form sustaining the spirit of amateurism as a sporting activity in which what matters to the players ‘on the field of play’ continues to matter hugely to them, even if it is of no concern to anyone else. See also athleticism; character building; fair play; shamateurism.


Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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