If you are interested in football, especially in college football, read on to learn some interesting insight into the roots of the game.
In the 1890s college football had already created strong emotions of love and hate. Big-time eastern football had demonstrated that it could draw large crowds, create alumni support, and build an identity that would attract new students. The fact that it had little to do with classical education bothered only the traditionalists on campus and a handful of crotchety purists elsewhere who wrote critically of football in magazines, newspaper articles, and official college reports.
Outward appearances may have changed, but the gridiron problems in that era appear remarkably similar to the present. In the 1890s big-time recruiters and alumni contacts scoured the eastern prep schools for talented juniors and seniors ready to entice them to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Occasionally, unscrupulous alumni convinced students to quit high school before they graduated in order to enroll at an institution with a big-time team. Boosters funneled tuition money to poor but athletically talented boys from the coal fields of Pennsylvania and the industrial towns of the Northeast to preparatory schools in order to prepare them for big-time college athletics. Some of these young men were in their mid-twenties when they finally entered college. Other athletes went from school to school selling their services, phantom players who had no academic ties with the institution.
Big-time alumni football entrepreneurs—the counterpart of today’s athletic directors—arranged a schedule of games which began with weak teams and worked up to big money games held in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Gridiron profits supported stadium building, sumptuous living quarters and training tables for players, as well as Pullman cars for retinues of trainers, massagers, alumni coaches, and other hangers-on who followed the team to the big games. What was left over went to support an array of lesser sports that big-time football had eclipsed.
At the major football schools critics complained that football players became the campus elite, admired by their fellow students and regarded skeptically by many faculty. In the absence of professional football, players basked in the attention of the media, and the names of the gridiron stars appeared regularly in the sports pages of big city newspapers. Even college faculty and presidents had to be properly worshipful of football and its elite because they knew that football advertised their schools and helped to retain the loyalty of alumni. As a result, they often ignored or remained blissfully unaware of scams to admit unqualified students, play athletes who never enrolled, or resort to stratagems to keep weak players eligible.
Though booster organizations did not exist outside of alumni groups, booster alumni and townspeople, student managers, and even faculty engaged in unethical acts. A Princeton alumnus named Patterson entertained football players and made every effort to entice them to his alma mater. Authorities at Swarthmore lured the huge lineman, Bob (“Tiny”) Maxwell, from the University of Chicago and arranged for the president of the college to pass his bills to a prominent alumnus. Professor Woodrow Wilson, a fanatic Princeton enthusiast, shamelessly used football when he spoke to alumni organizations and vigorously opposed football reform in the 1890s and early 1900s. In contrast, Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, who gloried in the strenuous life and strongly supported Harvard football, turned against football brutality in 1905 and initiated the first efforts in his capacity as president to reform the spirit in which big-time football teams competed.
We know that the prototype for athletic organization began at eastern institutions in the 1880s and 1890s. Yale’s Walter Camp, “the father of American football,” became the model for the coach and athletic director. While pursuing a business career, he also acted as Yale’s de facto vice president for athletic operations, who dominated the rules committees and ceaselessly publicized the game. From the profits of big games in Boston and New York, Camp created an ample reserve fund that supported lesser sports, afforded lush treatment for athletes, and provided the money that eventually went toward building Yale Bowl, the first of the modern football stadiums. By making Yale into an athletic powerhouse, Camp built the school’s reputation, making it second only to Harvard. Because he succeeded so well, Camp became the first big-name foe of sweeping football reforms—and an especially hard-core opponent of the forward pass.
By the turn of century the deaths of players in football led state legislators to introduce laws banning the gridiron game. Players for big-time teams, critics charged, were coached to injure their opponents or “put them out of business.” The nature of the game, with its mass formations and momentum plays, made football less an athletic contest than a collegiate version of warlike combat. Eventually the violence in football led to attempts to reduce its brutality through reforms. New rules put a strong emphasis on better officiating and on less dangerous formations, but they did not necessarily improve the athletic environment.
The deaths and brutality presented an excellent opportunity to root out the worst excesses of the runaway football culture. In the 1890s and early 1900s, responding to public opinion, professors and presidents spent a great deal of time talking about the overemphasis of intercollegiate athletics—and, in some cases, passing rules at the conference and institutional level to regulate college sports. Why, then, did college presidents and faculty, who had far more authority over their students than their modern counterparts, fail to control the gridiron beast? Put differently, why did school presidents and faculty often themselves become part of the athletic problem?
. One problem might be that faculty members played major roles in introducing early football. In addition to Woodrow Wilson, who served as a part-time coach at Wesleyan, an English instructor at Oklahoma who had recently come from Harvard, Vernon Parrington, taught the fundamentals of football on the windswept practice field in Oklahoma. At Miami University of Ohio the president called upon all able-bodied members of the faculty to go out for football. In a game between North Carolina and Virginia a member of the North Carolina faculty scored the winning touchdown. Often the faculty proved helpful to the budding football programs in other ways such as giving athletes passing grades or writing articles arguing that football built intellect. Only a handful, like Wisconsin’s Frederick Jackson Turner, made a determined effort to root out the abuses in the culture of college football such as the intense media attention given to the sport and its tendency to cushion star athletes from academic requirements. That was more than a century ago. When we turn to the 1980s and 1990s what do we encounter? Outward appearances of football may have changed, but the problems appear hauntingly similar. Big-time football teams induce players to attend their institution with offers of cars and money as well as running booster operations to funnel cash to blue-chip players. Players who obtain special admission or enter the institution fraudulently do so only to play football and often leave without graduating. Schools manage to keep their players eligible by manufacturing credits or by easing them into simple courses in which they are assured of receiving passing grades. Some coaches engage in violence toward players in practice and even try to drive them out of school so that they can use their scholarship slot.
Athletic departments and institutional officials have become obsessed with the potential for profits from televised big games or bowl games. Big-time teams in the NCAA try to manipulate the organization so that they will be able to have more coaches, scholarships, and only minimal academic requirements. Players commit acts of violence and brutality, then manage to avoid the consequences. College presidents whose salaries and prominence fall far short of the head football coaches dutifully show up at football games and related alumni events, treading cautiously around the mire of big-time college athletics.
All of this has added up to major athletic scandals, most of them involving big-time football. Scandals such as the pay-for-play violations at Southern Methodist and Auburn from the late 1970s to the early 1990s man-aged to create internal disruptions and negative publicity at numbers of big-name institutions. Yet, in spite of the obvious flaws in college football, it continues to enlarge its grip on the major universities. The athletic foundations persist in enlarging their massive gridiron complexes, selling the rights to buy tickets for upscale luxury boxes and suites, and then collecting additional revenues for the sale of high-priced tickets. The major teams have created indoor facilities out of donations that might have gone to deserving but impoverished non-athletes for scholarships. While quasi-professional student-athletes play the game, ordinary students have little to do with the sport. In an atmosphere of highly specialized career coaches, publicists, trainers, and tutors, college football reflects more than ever the professionalism that reformers long ago set out to de-emphasize.
No one would deny that football constitutes one of the most entertaining and enjoyable spectator sports. In the early days some faculty believed that the student enthusiasm for football would enable the institutions to alleviate the pervasive antisocial behavior of undergraduates. Being aware of its appeal, most athletic critics and reformers attempted to change football rather than to abolish it. The few colleges that dropped football did so it because the school had no choice or, occasionally, because a college president happened to wield unusual power at a critical moment in football’s history. Far and away the largest group of thoughtful gridiron critics have attempted to reform football and to reshape it in such a way that it fit more reasonably and appropriately into the spirit and life of the university. Why have they not succeeded?
Beginning in the 1890s and continuing into the 1990s, reformers have spent tens of thousands of hours attending meetings and conferences, devising new rules to solve the latest problems that have cropped up, and generally trying to work out better systems for their own institutions; in the early 1900s moderate reformers founded the NCAA to deal with deaths and brutality and to put football securely under the thumb of the faculty and college presidents. Again in the early 1950s, in a groundswell of outrage against cheating, gambling, and subsidies for athletes, college presidents and faculty members tried to create stricter standards to reduce the greed and professionalism in football rather than to drop it altogether. In the 1980s and early 1990s an outbreak of scandal in big-time football resulted the same response of temporary uneasiness and halting reforms which had become by then a pattern in the history of college football.
The outbreak in the 1980s once again clearly emphasized the failure of reform to bring about real change. In three major periods of gridiron upheaval the colleges have been unable or unwilling to eliminate the causes of chronic cheating. While political reforms by Congress and the states have achieved some enduring success, football and big-time athletics generally have had to face the same issues again and again—much like Sisyphus repeatedly pushing the stone uphill. Why does big-time football manage to be almost constantly in a state of crisis? Is there some quality about football, or college sports generally, or a flaw in higher education which causes this turmoil? If the Greek ideal of education stands for the training of body, spirit, and mind, why have the colleges failed so abysmally at their mission?
Good question, isn’t it? But the answer is beyond the subject of this article – and, unfortunately, beyond the expertise of the college football experts.