Money Really Devalues Athletics

SAY ALL you want about how money has ruined athletes, it's hurt international sporting more. The problem is the same thing that plagues practically every aspect of sport: rampant professionalism.

Take the biennial Ryder Cup matches between our pro golfers and the Europeans, which begin tomorrow at Brookline, Mass. Nowadays, this matchup has no equal in international intrigue as far as U.S. men's sports is concerned. (Not at least until we reach the first division in soccer's World Cup.) Though we're the Ryder Cup favorites again - as we were when we lost in Spain two years ago - we're in danger of losing our third match in a row.

Paradoxically, it's our recent vulnerability that has made this one of the most riveting events in all sports.

The Ryder Cup began 70 years ago as a contest between American and British professional golfers - when there were no "professional golfers," only golf professionals (called "teaching pros" today).

But times have changed. When some members of the U.S. team began making it clear they wanted to share in the massive profits from the NBC telecast, they were soundly criticized for putting greed before patriotism, even after switching their demands, so that the money would go to charity. (Before you swear in disgust, consider the pressure and the consequences: When Mark Calcavecchia put his tee shot in the water at the 17th hole at Kiawah Island, S.C., at the '91 Ryder Cup, he wasn't the same for two years afterward. Money might not have compensated him, but it would've put things in a more fitting perspective.) Our desperation to win the Cup is a measure of how little we take part in international games - especially at a team level. There are a few reasons why world games get a halfhearted shrug so far as the United States is concerned: First, no one else plays our favorite sports nearly as well as we do; and when some star begins to glimmer somewhere else - an infielder in Venezuela, a pitcher in Japan, a hockey defenseman in Sweden, a basketball center in Nigeria - it's only a matter of time until a U.S. league pulls him in.

And apart from the factor of "so what if Wayne Gretzky's playing for Team Canada, we've got his lease," our U.S. professionals by and large seem uninterested in international contests. In tennis, most of our recent Davis Cup squads have been decimated by players covering their professional obligations - and if there are only so many five-hour matches left in Pete Sampras' body, who's to blame him for picking and choosing? Maybe it's time to wrest our national sporting interest away from the pros and find a way to return it to the amateurs. That's hard to do, and not just because it would mean not only taking away advertising opportunities from some very big corporations - there's the matter of enforcing all those expired, musty old bylaws against pay-for-play.

Take the Olympics: sure, during the Cold War, the Communist nations flouted "amateur status" by fielding virtual professionals. But since the doors were opened to professionals, most of the Communist governments have fallen - and big-time team sports in the Olympics have turned into a kind of mega-corporate-sponsored spectacle of professionals playing halfhearted exhibitions. Maybe it was better when our amateurs were losing to virtual professionals. How much sweeter was it when we won - as when the American hockey team beat the Russians in 1980? Let's face it: An institution such as the Olympics needs care, nurturing and dignity to thrive - and it's had none of these for quite some time now, as the Salt Lake City scandal and its aftermath demonstrates. So long as the International Olympic Committee shows no genuine sign of changing, the pageantry will look phonier and phonier.

With star athletes leaving college to sign up with the NBA and now even the PGA Tour, the status of the amateur athlete is becoming more and more marginalized, as though amateur athletes are just mediocre professionals. College sports, the last bastion, are under perpetual siege (just add alumni pressure to the corrupting influences of creeping professionalism).

Making amateur status a prerequisite for international contests could do a great deal toward re-establishing the long-lost ideal of doing something for no reason but the love of it. Especially if we've gotten to a point where John McEnroe has to inveigle the top American players on live television broadcasts, as he did a week ago, trying to pin down Sampras to commit for the next Davis Cup on a telecast of the U.S. Open. In a way, you can't blame the guy - what happens to professionals is just human nature, pure and simple.

Maybe the best reason of all for international amateur restrictions is that it would put the defense of our national sporting pride with those whose hearts and minds are best suited to defend it: the next generation.