Progressivism and college football

George Will reviews The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football by Brian M. Ingrassia, in which we learn that big-time intercollegiate football grew out of progressivism and its vision for higher education:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

The collective activity of team sports came after a great collective exertion, the Civil War, and two great social changes, urbanization and industrialization. . . . .

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production.

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

As universities multiplied, football fueled the competition for prestige and other scarce resources. Shortly after it was founded, the University of Chicago hired as football coach the nation’s first tenured professor of physical culture and athletics, Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had played at Yale for Walter Camp, an early shaper of the rules and structure of intercollegiate football. Camp also was president of the New Haven Clock Co. Clocks were emblematic of modernity — workers punching time clocks, time-and-motion efficiency studies. Camp saw football as basic training for the managerial elites demanded by corporations.

Progressives saw football as training managers for the modern regulatory state. Ingrassia says that a Yale professor, the social Darwinist William Graham Sumner (who was Camp’s brother-in-law), produced one academic acolyte who thought the “English race” was establishing hegemony because it played the “sturdiest” sports.

Reinforced concrete and other advancements in construction were put to use building huge stadiums to bring the public onto campuses that, to many, seemed increasingly unintelligible. Ingrassia says “Harvard Stadium was the prototype” for dozens of early 20th-century stadiums. In 1914, the inaugural game in the Yale Bowl drew 70,055 spectators. The Alabama, Louisiana State and Southern California football programs are the children of Harvard’s, Yale’s and Princeton’s.

“It’s kind of hard,” said Alabama’s Bear Bryant, “to rally ’round a math class.” And today college football is said to give vast, fragmented universities a sense of community through shared ritual. In this year’s first “game of the century,” Alabama’s student-athletes played those from Michigan in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., which is 605 miles and 1,191 miles from Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor, respectively.

via George Will: College football and big government – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin
  • Dan Kempin
  • helen

    “And today college football is said to give vast, fragmented universities a sense of community through shared ritual.”

    College football is a game for adults who can afford the outrageous ticket prices (or maybe for their corporations who underwrite a box). College students are offered such a meagre ration of tickets to the important games that most of them graduate without having set foot in the stadium.

    Oh, yes, I listen on the radio. :)

  • helen

    “And today college football is said to give vast, fragmented universities a sense of community through shared ritual.”

    College football is a game for adults who can afford the outrageous ticket prices (or maybe for their corporations who underwrite a box). College students are offered such a meagre ration of tickets to the important games that most of them graduate without having set foot in the stadium.

    Oh, yes, I listen on the radio. :)

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    @2 Texas A&M does it right, the student section sits about 40,000 which translates fairly well everybody who wants a ticket, gets a ticket. Student tickets were also fairly reasonable in price. Now if only we could play more than 1/2 game on the offense.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    @2 Texas A&M does it right, the student section sits about 40,000 which translates fairly well everybody who wants a ticket, gets a ticket. Student tickets were also fairly reasonable in price. Now if only we could play more than 1/2 game on the offense.

  • helen

    Aggies lost this week? :)

  • helen

    Aggies lost this week? :)

  • http://www.lutheranmessenger.blogspot.com David

    And then there are States like Nebraska where football fuels a large portion of the economy…where the sold out Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest population in the State behind the cities of Lincoln and Omaha on Saturdays with home games. Of course, the history of football can’t be completed without the study of the rivalries and passion fostered in various regions and States–Alabama vs. Auburn, Texas vs. A&M, Indiana vs. Purdue, USC vs. UCLA. Sports is a social institution.

  • http://www.lutheranmessenger.blogspot.com David

    And then there are States like Nebraska where football fuels a large portion of the economy…where the sold out Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest population in the State behind the cities of Lincoln and Omaha on Saturdays with home games. Of course, the history of football can’t be completed without the study of the rivalries and passion fostered in various regions and States–Alabama vs. Auburn, Texas vs. A&M, Indiana vs. Purdue, USC vs. UCLA. Sports is a social institution.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    The Hoosiers have a football team, David? Who knew? :^)

    Seriously, if you take a look at the shenanigans that fill college football, it takes a diehard to argue that colleges ought to have a big time team. Opportunities for students to develop character and toughness? Sure. A privileged class where SAT scores of 650 and a criminal record get you a five year scholarship? No way.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    The Hoosiers have a football team, David? Who knew? :^)

    Seriously, if you take a look at the shenanigans that fill college football, it takes a diehard to argue that colleges ought to have a big time team. Opportunities for students to develop character and toughness? Sure. A privileged class where SAT scores of 650 and a criminal record get you a five year scholarship? No way.

  • Jennifer Snyder

    And at the local level, high school sports are wreaking havoc on district budgets and property taxe; the line items for sports are untouchable when cuts must be made. The reasoning is always so that students who have ” no opportunity” could possibly win a scholarship to college. In reality, only about 1/2 dozen kids end up getting scholarships from our town each year, so we are paying all this money for some one else’s kid to go to college for free? Being homeschooled, my kids have always played sports through town clubs or CYO teams, where less is spent per athlete, and competition is just as intense as on the school teams, proving once again that the private sector can run the same program more efficiently than the government!

  • Jennifer Snyder

    And at the local level, high school sports are wreaking havoc on district budgets and property taxe; the line items for sports are untouchable when cuts must be made. The reasoning is always so that students who have ” no opportunity” could possibly win a scholarship to college. In reality, only about 1/2 dozen kids end up getting scholarships from our town each year, so we are paying all this money for some one else’s kid to go to college for free? Being homeschooled, my kids have always played sports through town clubs or CYO teams, where less is spent per athlete, and competition is just as intense as on the school teams, proving once again that the private sector can run the same program more efficiently than the government!