July 8 (Bloomberg) -- Shortly before yesterday’s Wimbledon final, a reporter asked Andy Murray what Fred Perry might say to him if he were still around. “Why are you not wearing my kit?" Murray quipped.
Clever riposte! But it probably would have been something more like this: "You lucky bastard. They’re paying you for this!"
Perry, as you are no doubt sick of hearing by now, was the last British champion of Wimbledon, winning the tournament three straight years, from 1934 to 1936.
What you may not know is that Perry didn’t earn a shilling in the process. Wimbledon was a strictly amateur affair until 1967. This was by long-standing decree of the Lawn Tennis Association, which insisted that tennis was a game for “gentlemen,” meaning rich British aristocrats who didn’t have to work for a living. Paying players would betray its lofty ideals. If this argument sounds familiar, it’s because America’s college-sports system has its roots in the very same Victorian-era claptrap.
Perry, whose father was a day laborer and left-wing political activist, became fed up with the LTA and the caste system its rules reinforced. He wanted to get paid. The year after winning his last Wimbledon, he went pro, which basically meant touring the world playing exhibition matches against an American named Ellsworth Vines. For this, Perry was essentially excommunicated from British tennis.
Two decades later, long after Perry had become an American citizen, the British tennis establishment finally came around to his point of view. It was a purely practical decision -- Wimbledon’s insistence on barring professional players was turning the tournament into a joke -- but the LTA did the right thing all the same.
Murray earned close to $2.5 million yesterday, but that’s just a small fraction of what he will now make in endorsements - - money that he would also have been barred from receiving as an “amateur.” Murray may not be wearing Fred Perry’s signature clothes, but the fact that he’s getting paid millions to wear someone else’s is at least an indirect product of Perry’s labors. For its part, Wimbledon managed to survive the abandonment of amateurism, just as the Olympics eventually did. And just as college sports one day will.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)