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Original Issue


When an expert, experienced sports reporter has the guts to state publicly that amateurism, as it has traditionally been defined in America, is a "poison," he deserves to be heard. Leonard Koppett has the credentials, and he gets my attention when he says that the amateur system not only leads to hypocritical practices, which we already knew, but is also "evil in principle."

Koppett makes these statements, and others almost as provocative, in Sports Illusion, Sports Reality (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95), a book for everyone who has any active role in big-time sports, as player, manager, administrator, official or journalist. Beyond question, every journalism school and every university that offers a serious curriculum in sports administration—as opposed to those set up for the sole purpose of providing A's for athletes—should make this book required reading.

Its relevance for the fan may not be quite so strong, but anyone who really wants to understand sports in this country could benefit from reading it.

To Koppett, an amateur is someone who jogs or plays weekend softball. In his view, it's not only misleading but also insulting to call someone who has spent his or her life perfecting a skill—the miler who holds the world record, for example—an amateur. The rules of amateurism evolved in Victorian England, a time when "gentlemen" looked down on working for pay, to a point where the lack of remuneration was elevated to a symbol for moral purity. There was a social stigma associated with receiving money for playing sports. These days it is patently absurd, Koppett writes, to say that a sprinter who is paid with a college scholarship worth thousands of dollars is an amateur and thus eligible for the Olympics, while a judo enthusiast who once did a little instructing for peanuts is a professional and forever tainted.

What to do about it? Simple, Koppett says. Abolish the code of amateurism, which is a cynical fraud anyway. The Olympics could remain amateur, in that no one would be paid for participating, but neither would anyone be barred because he couldn't produce a simon-pure chit. The finest athletes would all be welcome, regardless of their need to make a living at the thing they do best.

While Koppett's cure for shamateurism is one of the most striking and admirable things he has to say in Sports-Illusion, Sports Reality, it's not the principal subject of the book, which is a detailed study of big-money spectator sports from every conceivable angle. It begins with a point-by-point analysis of sports as a business. There's nothing very startling here, but it's all solid information. This is followed by an examination of sports journalism, which should be instructive to any young reporter and a few old ones—especially the chapters on reporting technique and sportswriting ethics.

Along the way, Koppett propounds some intriguing—and, in many cases, doubtlessly valid—notions. There is, for example, "sports-think," the American tendency to make analogies between the playing field and the real world. And these analogies are dangerous, says Koppett: "In sports, of course, victory in the contest is an end in itself: there is nothing beyond it, except the next game or the next season. So a sports-loving culture, steeped in sports-think, starts to follow the contest for [political] power in contest terms, rather than in terms of what the winner will do later." And if this sort of thinking becomes the norm in the U.S., Koppett seems to suggest, there goes the old ball game.

Some of Koppett's proposals, I confess, seem a bit naive, notably his formula for determining collegiate eligibility, based solely on an athlete's genuine progress toward a degree. It sounds fine except that it assumes a universal reluctance on the part of college presidents to compromise academic integrity by granting phony degrees. I wonder about that.

As Koppett's title clearly indicates, he's mainly concerned with identifying and explaining the illusions in American sport, including the grand one that underlies it: that the result of a game matters. If you've ever wondered why you believe that, as I certainly have, then this book may help you find the answer. And for those of you who hope to spend your lives profiting from that illusion, this can be your basic text.