Tradition is the defining aspect of college sports, but you don't know tradition until you go to England. Specifically, you don't know sports tradition until you've been to the Henley Royal Regatta, England's premier rowing event. Henley started decades before anyone even thought about college football, and the two are worlds apart.
College sports have modernized beyond belief, particularly in the past 20 years. Everything is sponsored, athletic departments are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and teams unveil new uniforms at nightclubs. Major campus programs cash in on the idea of tradition, acknowledging the past for maximum emotional effect. All the while, almost nothing is done the way it once was, save for a cheer or two.
In fact, only one tradition seems intact: maintaining amateurism, the ever-changing law that ensures college athletes cannot be paid for their abilities.
At Henley, things are different. The scene at the course on the banks of the River Thames bears a stunning resemblance to what life must have been like when the regatta began as an amateur event, in 1839. The dress, the social class, the persnickety rules—it's all the same.
The only thing that's absent? Amateurism, a tradition that was born among Victorian Era English rowers. Yet somehow the regatta has not collapsed.
As the National Collegiate Athletic Association continues to defend its economic system in both federal antitrust court and the court of public opinion—arguing that pay-for-play will bring forth a college-sports apocalypse—perhaps it could stand to take a hint.
Of course, some things have changed at Henley since 1839. There are more events, there are some televisions for fans to watch the races, and the race official rides in a motorboat behind the competitors. But for the most part, the present resembles the past, with tradition strictly upheld.
As a former rower, I had heard about the tradition of Henley, and I knew about the rules that would be enforced in my first trip to the regatta, to watch my brother row for the Y Quad Cities Rowing Association. The rules are strict, and enforced by Stewards, the wealthy gatekeepers of the regatta. Gentlemen who watch from the Stewards' Enclosure are required to wear suits. Ladies are required to wear dresses below the knees; hats, "whilst not a requirement," are encouraged.
None of this is a joke. Members are told to remind their guests of the rules "ensure that the standards are maintained and to avoid the possibility of embarrassment of a Guest being refused admission." A woman in my group was turned away from the Stewards' Enclosure for wearing a dress that fell just above the knee.
Still, walking the grounds at Henley, along the River Thames, is something of a dream. A scene out of a 19th-century French oil painting. The patrons and umpires wear suits. Former rowers wear jackets from their glory days. Lawn chairs are set up on pristine mowed grass, in front of a grandstand where the audience claps politely for each boat that passes by.
It is quaint. Serene. A step back in time.
But while the Stewards of Henley's traditions were unwilling to compromise on dress length, they were willing to do a complete 180 on requiring amateur status—not being paid at all for rowing—and for good reason. Losing amateurism hasn't hurt Henley any more than it has hurt the Olympics. The regatta now attracts the best competition every year. One of the main attractions in this year's regatta was reigning Olympic champion Mahé Drysdale, who won the gold medal in the single sculls at the London Games. Given his long list of sponsors, he assuredly would have been banned in Henley's early days.
Like the NCAA, the early Stewards of Henley were worried that professionals would ruin the sanctity of their event. So, in 1879, they came up with a list of rules to define a non-amateur as someone:
1. Who has ever competed in any open competition for a stake, money, or entrance fee.
2. Who has ever competed with or against a professional for any prize.
3. Who has ever taught, pursued, or assisted in the practice of athletic exercises of any kind as a means of gaining a livelihood.
4. Who has been employed in or about boats for money or wages.
5. Who is or has been, by trade or employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan, or labourer.
More pointedly, wealthy Victorian Era rowers didn't want to play sports with poor people. Their solution? Shut out people who earned money through sports, or through physical activity that could make them, you know, strong, giving them an advantage in competition. Being English, they were pretty explicit about that, regardless of whose feelings it might hurt; at Henley, they banned "labourers." Nobody who was born outside the upper classes could conceivably follow these rules, and thus Henley successfully kept out the unwashed poors … er, "non-amateurs."
Because of these rules, the greatest rower in American history never got to compete at Henley. John B. Kelly, Sr., was the first rower to be a triple Olympic gold-medal winner, and he was widely regarded as the best amateur rower in the world. But when he applied to row at Henley in 1920, he was denied.
Most people presumed that the Stewards did not want an American to win the Henley Diamond Sculls, the most prestigious sculling event at the regatta, which Kelly likely would have won by a wide margin. However, the reasoning for Kelly's rejection is still muddled.
One theory is that Kelly, a bricklayer by trade, was considered to have an unfair advantage over other "amateurs"—virtuous, morally superior people who simply competed in sports for fun and had the luxury of hiring their lessers to do manual labor. The other theory is that Kelly was banned because he was a member of the Vesper Boat Club, which had raised money to make the trip to England, another violation of amateurism.
Under the old rules, my brother's crew probably would have been banned, too. Despite the fact that they row for a YMCA-owned club with kids from the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois—a group that only on rare occasions gets coverage from the local paper—and are hardly "professionals," they have stickers on their boats supporting an oar company that gave them a discount.
Sponsorships don't seem like a big deal to sports fans today, but back in the early days of Henley, it would have been considered blasphemous. Why? Well, to put it in the most English of terms, old, rich people are a bunch of scobberlotchers.
But the world began to change, and even though some of the gatekeepers of Henley feared "the deadly inroad of professionalism," the rules regarding manual laborers were removed in the 1930s. All amateurism rules were lifted in 1998.
Unsurprisingly, once people like Drysdale and teams like Y Quad Cities were allowed to participate, the sanctity and popularity of the event did not disappear. To the contrary, Henley is as popular as ever—an estimated 200,000 people come each year—and it is truly a social happening. People care more about the presence of the race than they do about the financial situations of the athletes participating.
One local bartender, who worked in Henley's oldest building, told me about a woman who had been at Henley for a few days and complained to him that she "hadn't seen a single horse yet. She had no clue what the event was." "You came all this way to picnic?" someone else asked our group, oblivious to the possibility that we might be associated with the rowers.
A friend of mine once observed that a University of Iowa football game is a social event where there also happens to be sports. Similarly, Henley is the hottest annual English garden party, which happens to take place at a regatta. The entire scene wouldn't be out of place on an American campus:
There is tailgating! People put up tents and large buffets of food next to their cars, but instead of the beer and brats there is wine and cheese, and instead of team-colored overalls, there are suits.
There are concessions! You cannot buy brats. I was disappointed.
There is a band! It does not march.
People enjoy the arts! Okay, maybe that only happens at my alma mater.
What makes Henley special, then, isn't amateurism, even though that tradition was once guarded so closely. What makes it special is the spectacle it has become, much like college football.
The NCAA likes to warn that without amateurism, college football will lose its popularity, and it argued that vigorously during the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit that set out upend the current system. But the power brokers of college sports can learn something from an organization with far more tradition and far more history than anything the University of Alabama has to offer.
Henley would not be Henley if dresses were a little bit shorter. Henley would not be Henley if it started serving hamburgers instead of oysters. Henley would not be Henley if the old results board were replaced.
But Henley is still Henley without amateurism. Just ask Drysdale, my brother, and all of the happy fans. If the English, the gatekeepers of tradition, decided they can let this one go, American sports sure as hell can, too.