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The Amateur Era

Definition of ‘amateur’

The rise of Northern professionalism

Photo: World Rugby Museum

An amateur is someone who engages in an activity out of love. The word is derived from French and Latin word ‘amour,’ meaning ‘love’.

Amateurism is a belief that things done without self-interest are simply better than those done for money – that is to say, professionalism.

Amateur sports require players to participate without payment. Amateurism with regard to sport was a fanatically held ideal in the 19th century, especially among the upper classes, but has been eroded and is now held by very few.

The term ‘shamateurism’ refers to the hypocrisy that occurred when organisations gave financial rewards to ‘amateur’ players, in effect making a ‘sham’ of their amateur status.

Origins of amateur sport

For many centuries, sport in the British Isles had been the sole preserve of the rich. They were the only people who had the free time in which to play sport.

The working classes worked six days a week (Monday to Saturday) and, according to religious custom, all sport was forbidden on Sundays. Traditional mass sports were therefore mostly played on public holidays, for example on Shrove Tuesday, when traditional 'mob football' was popular.

The working classes and amateurism

A series of ‘Factories Acts’ in the 19th century eventually gave certain working men half a day off on Saturdays. The opportunity to take part in sport on a Saturday afternoon was suddenly available to many workers.

Payments for success were well established in working class life – for example, prize money for winning pub games.

Payment had never been an issue for the rich because they had never had the problem of having to take time off work in order to play, train, practise, rest or recover from injury.

The first signs of payment coming into sport led to the verbalization of the concept of ‘amateurism.’ Supporters of amateurism feared that rampant professionalism would destroy the 'Corinthian spirit' – the principle that decreed that playing well and playing fairly was far more important than winning.

The supporters of amateurism

Supporters of the amateur ideal despised the influence of money and the effect they perceived it to have on sports.

Their view was that the professional only wanted to receive the highest amount of pay possible for their performance, rather than to perform to the highest possible standard regardless of additional benefit.

The professional player would feel a higher level of responsibility to the club if it was paying them and they would therefore be more likely to try and win at all costs.

If payment for performance was to become the central driving force of any sport, supporters of the amateur ideal felt it would inevitably lead to:

  • Cynicism
  • Cheating
  • Inflated wages
  • Rough and unfair play
  • Abuse of umpires and referees

Also, where professionals were permitted, it was hard for amateurs to compete against them.

The enemies of amateurism

The ban on payments was felt by some to prevent all players obtaining the highest possible standards of performance.

Unlike richer players, the working classes were not free to pursue their chosen sport fully. They needed to acquire income through working long hours, meaning that total amateurism discriminated against them.

Amateurism in rugby football (before the great split of 1895)

Rugby’s roots were firmly set in the upper and middle-class environments of the public school and university. This was very much the case when the RFU was formed in 1871.

However, the game quickly grew in popularity around the country, especially among the working classes in the north of England.

In 1879 came the first definite example of a rugby player being paid, with Teddy Bartram receiving money from Yorkshire club Wakefield Trinity.

His payments (travel expenses, etc.) were an open secret in the north of England but, at that time the RFU had no laws relating to amateurism and professionalism, since the issue had never arisen.

The Yorkshire Rugby Union moved quickly in 1879 and copied the Marylebone Cricket Club’s laws relating to the definition of a (cricketing) amateur. These were the first laws relating to amateurism in any football code.

The RFU did not provide national rules on the matter until 1886 – soon after which Teddy Bartram was banned for life.

The RFU’s first amateurism laws

It was impossible to exclude the working-class masses from rugby, so the authorities decided to let them in on their terms.

At the 1886 RFU Annual General Meeting, strict laws relating to amateurism were introduced.

The RFU said they wanted the game to be a pleasurable recreation – a relaxation for the body and mind, played for honour and not for gain.

However, they also knew that gentlemen who played once a week as a pastime (i.e. themselves) would find themselves no match for men who gave up their whole time to it.

They were concerned that an influx of professional players would dominate the game at the expense of the gentlemen amateur clubs. This was a lesson freshly learned in soccer, where exactly that had developed over the mid-1880s.

To argue their case, they claimed that rugby (and pre-code folk football) had always been amateur. This is simply untrue. It was an ‘invented tradition’ to legitimise rugby’s response to working-class involvement in the game.

Amateurism in rugby football (the great split of 1895)

The RFU’s move came too late. The great northern teams already had civic pride and importance attached to them. They wanted to beat their local or rival towns.

That put them under pressure to find (and keep) the best players and to adopt successful playing methods. This meant they needed large numbers of spectators paying at the turnstile. Therefore, they needed a regular series of matches (i.e. a league system) to ensure regular income.

Payments in kind (a leg of mutton or trips to the seaside for each game won) were as popular as cash payments. Clubs would also find players work at better wages to tempt them to their town.

Alternatively, the player might work for members of the club’s committee. Boot money (illegal payments placed in their boots whilst they were on the pitch) were paid to certain players to help them cope with expenses.

The more the game veered towards professionalism, the harsher the amateur response.

The main struggle focused on ‘broken time payments’. These were payments to recompense players for the time they had to take off work to play or train.

The clash came to a head in 1895 when clubs from the north of England broke away to form the Northern Rugby Union (later to become the Rugby Football League).

Rugby League stayed an amateur sport for three years with the exception of broken time payments. After this they allowed players to be paid for playing, as long as they had a regular job. Full-time professionalism came much later.

Amateurism in rugby football (after the great split of 1895)

Rugby union would officially remain an amateur sport for the next 100 years.

The union authorities placed severe sanctions on associations with rugby league. Even playing an amateur rugby league game was sufficient to receive a ban from rugby union.

Union players who went to play professional league were banned for life, even from attending rugby union matches as supporters.

Payment for expenses was often permitted, however. The ‘amateur’ 1908 Australian rugby union tourists to the British Isles received payment of 21 shillings a week.

This was more than twice the amount that players on the following season's ‘professional’ Great Britain rugby league tour of Australia received as weekly wages!

Technically speaking, rugby union players should have been holding down ‘9 to 5’ (or equivalent) jobs in order to support their amateur status.

However, there were many stories of players being offered jobs by club committee members that were little more than token gestures. By the 1980s and 1990s there were mounting allegations that the top players were actually making a living from the game.

A House of Commons Select Committee observed that:

“The absorption of professionalism into rugby union in the Northern Hemisphere was dictated by the reality of 'shamateurism' at the highest levels of the game, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, where the pretence of amateur status had become severely undermined and unsustainable.”

“Although rugby union had been ostensibly amateur since its birth, the regulations prohibiting professionalism were not, in practice, enforced. Governing bodies turned a blind eye to breaches of the regulations.”

The end of amateurism

Following the advent of the Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987, rugby union became a big draw for television ratings.

Rumours circulated during the 1995 Rugby World Cup that media tycoon Rupert Murdoch was about to finance a breakaway professional league of rugby union players (as had already happened in Australian rugby league).

This threat was genuine – he had already signed up some of the world’s best players. The game had to take the initiative and so immediately after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the International Rugby Football Board decided to open the sport to professionals.