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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Amateur sports = hypocrisy

This article appeared originally Dec. 30, 2010, in the Ellwood City Ledger, and was purged from the paper's internet archives when it upgraded its website.

Early in the last century, there was little doubt that Jack Kelly was the greatest rower of his day. He won two Olympic gold medals and would have bagged more hardware had the 1916 Olympics not been pre-empted for World War I.

But Kelly was prohibited from entering one of the world's most prestigious rowing events - the Diamond Sculls in England - because his club had been accused of professionalism and also that, as a bricklayer, his work amounted to training.

Like the Olympic Games in those days, the Diamond Sculls was strictly for amateurs only, although the latter event was even more fiercely anti-professional. But the idea behind both was to enable the upper crust to participate in competition apart from the great unwashed.

In short, Jack Kelly's blood hue was tested and found not to have been blue enough to compete in the Diamond Sculls.

That turned out to be comically ironic when the bricklayer's daughter joined the ranks of European royalty as Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco - nee Grace Kelly.

As a business all amateur athletics is exploitative, elitist and corrupt because it's predicated on depriving the athletes of any financial benefit from their efforts. And the Olympic Games' history of hypocrisy is now repeating itself with NCAA football and basketball.

The modern Olympics were created in the late 1800s by the French Baron de Coubertin, whose intention was to establish the games as a pushback against professionalism in soccer, horse racing, baseball and boxing.

Initially,the Olympics' amateur rules were so restrictive that physical education teachers were deemed professional athletes and thus ineligible to participate. Coubertin's vision - he was a baron for goodness sake - was to limit the games only to those who could train long enough and hard enough to become an elite athlete without getting paid.

In other words, the idle rich.

As the Olympic Games became increasingly popular and generated huge profits for its promoters, that vision proved unsustainable. Ultimately, the lords of the Olympics discovered what everyone else knew - that letting athletes make money is infinitely more honest than amateurism.

Today, when people long for the days of amateur sports in the Olympics, what they're really nostalgic for is a system rife with hypocrisy that was rigged in favor of state-sponsored Eastern Bloc stars and the already wealthy.

A similar hypocrisy exists in major-college football and men's basketball, where athletes are getting punished for the same things that coaches and administrators do as routine.

Ex-USC running back Reggie Bush had to return his Heisman Trophy because he signed with an agent while still in college.

Ohio State University quarterback Terrelle Pryor is looking at sitting out five games next season after selling memorabilia that he received for prior bowl appearances.

Let me repeat that for you. Pryor and four of his Buckeyes teammates could be suspended for selling their own stuff. Of course, they'll be allowed to play a couple of days hence in the Cotton Bowl, so they can help generate income for the NCAA and its hangers-on.

The NCAA's rules, which seem designed solely to keep athletes from getting their hands on the great wodges of cash that goes to everyone else involved with college sports, foster corruption by driving players to seek under-the-table income.

Sometimes integrity is best served not by punishing corruption, but by making it legal. The International Olympic Committee learned that lesson. Now it's the NCAA's turn.