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A Brief Historical Perspective on Intercollegiate Athletics

By Ellen Staurowsky

This is an excerpt from Administration of Intercollegiate Athletics edited by Erianne Weight and Robert Zullo.

Poll a dozen people about their perspectives on the value of college sport to higher education and a dozen different answers are likely to be expressed. There will be those who extol the virtues of participation in college sport, the bonding, the camaraderie, the tests of courage and will. There will be others who point to the benefit college sport provides in creating avenues to education, inspiring work ethic, goal orientation, and focus that predicts success in academic settings. And there will be still others who celebrate the capacity of college sport to serve as an anchor for institutional identity, pride in place, a generator for publicity, and a bridge between higher education and broader communities.


Though the value of college sport may be obvious to some, its shape and contours have been forged out of controversy and ongoing calls for reform. Today, the intense media scrutiny that is characteristic of twenty-first-century society highlights an array of issues for Americans to contemplate related to the college sport enterprise. Yet this flurry of broadcast and journalistic analysis bears a remarkable resemblance to concerns expressed generations earlier and dating back as far as 150 years or more. For example, a college president faced with the challenge of attracting a student body and meeting enrollment demands in the early 1900s was as likely to fret then as she is today about the threats posed by athletics to academic integrity. Indeed, more than 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University and later the 28th president of the United States, observed that the centerpiece of higher education often competed for attention with other offerings that both students and the general public found more alluring: "The sideshows are so numerous, so diverting - so important, if you will - that they have swallowed up the circus, and those who perform in the main tent often whistle for their audiences, discouraged and humiliated" (Wilson, 1909, p. 576).


These tensions were recently revisited by Scott Carlson (2013), who explored the evolution of the "country club" college. At such institutions, administrators invest more and more in "consumption amenities," such as athletics complexes and other kinds of entertainment, that lend the air of a resort community to the experience of campus residential life as a way to maintain market share and garner publicity. In fact, regardless of whether we are talking about small, selective institutions in the least competitive arena of what the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) refers to as Division III - where athletics is viewed as critical to the overall admissions process because of its power to bring tuition-paying students to campus (Stevens, 2007) - or about large public universities with multimillion-dollar athletics programs that draw more than a hundred thousand fans to football games, the relationship between athletics and academics has rarely been harmonious (Desrochers, 2013).


Indeed, one encounters an almost parallel universe when comparing today’s headlines with those that appeared in earlier years when the structure of college sport was being put into place. For example, a diary maintained by Harvard football coach Bill Reid in 1905 indicates the preoccupations that accompanied the job (Smith, 1994). For one thing, the media had to be managed, and deception was not out of the question. In addition, as the highest-paid coach in the country at the time, Reid became the focal point for discussions about excessive coach compensation, much like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (Staurowsky, 2011) or Alabama’s Nick Saban today (Brady, Berkowitz, & Upton, 2012).


Reid also shared with Meyer an anxiety born of the job that led to deterioration of his own health. When Meyer took the head coaching job at Ohio State in the fall of 2011, he had been on a hiatus from coaching due to job-related anxiety. He had stepped away from great success in a highly lucrative coaching position at the University of Florida, where his teams had won the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) national championship game in 2005 and 2006 (Buckeye Biography, 2013).


Reid also faced other challenges - such as keeping athletes eligible and managing relationships with faculty - that resonate with current discussions regarding the NCAA’s academic reform efforts (O’Neil, 2012) and current investigations into academic fraud (Pickeral, 2012). Reid pondered how to deal with players who exhibited too great a preference for strong drink, womanizing, and altercations with the law. These themes are all too familiar today, as in the case of a former University of Miami booster who disclosed that he had treated athletes to lavish parties, given them money and jewelry, and arranged sexual favors for them (Robinson, 2011).


In the area of campus politics, Reid undermined university president Charles Eliot’s efforts to ban football by going to Harvard’s governing board. In the present day, power struggles involving coaches who make more than their presidents (and in some cases more than any other public official in their state) continue to raise concern that college presidents are not in charge of athletics (Staurowsky, 2011).


Despite these similarities, some dramatic differences have also emerged in the evolving American educational landscape. Colleges and universities once dominated by male students are now populated by coeducational student bodies, and on many campuses female students are in the majority. Similarly, racial segregation has given way to integrated campuses. As these changes have occurred, athletics programs have also changed. As a result, grounding our approach to intercollegiate athletics in an appreciation of its historical roots offers insight into how issues arise and develop, what happens when issues remain unresolved, and where potential pathways to progress might be uncovered.


Historical Perspectives in the Lives of College Sport Administrators

As a director of athletics, the daily demands of your job loom large. As much good will and enthusiasm as your program has engendered in the community and among constituencies on your own campus (i.e., administrators, alumni, athletes, donors, faculty, fans, media, and parents), you cannot help but notice that there is a constant wave of dissatisfaction manifest in persistent calls for reform, concerns about athlete health and well-being, questions about whether athletes are receiving a legitimate education while pursuing their sports and frustrations with the perceptions that coaches are paid too much and the athletic department is engaged in excessive spending.


In confronting those issues as a leader, what do you educate yourself about and how do you approach these problems? To know an industry is to know what forces have shaped its present and future. The only way to do that is by looking to the past. In college sport, there is a certain reverence for some aspects of history. Traditions as embodied in school colors, the alma mater, certain rituals associated with your particular school and conference, and storied rivalries all speak to connections with the past. At the same time, within the average working day, the scripts that you enact on a daily basis have often been set in motion generations before you ever took over the reins of leadership. Unseen and unknown, they may guide you in directions you are not even aware of. The greater appreciation you have for the historical roots of the college sport enterprise, the more you are able to understand problems as they exist in present day and the more able you will be to identify ways to address those problems. While you do not want to be bound by the past, you also do not want to approach problems from a position of ignorance. Balancing the past, present, and future may be one of the biggest challenges for anyone seeking to lead college sport programs effectively in the 21st Century. To be better prepared, read on.


Higher Education and Student Experience in Nineteenth-Century America

In the modern consciousness, it would be difficult to dispute the notion that football serves as the center of the solar system of college sport. In the December 2012 IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum (presented by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal), the tone for the two-day discussion of the business of college sport was set when it was announced that "college football owns Saturdays," meaning that college football drew the highest Saturday night ratings among network television programs seven times during the 2012 season (Elfman, 2012). In a further indication of football’s status, in the lead-up to the first night game of the 2012 season, ESPN hosted an online chat about college football that lasted 25 hours. However, for all of football’s dominance today, it was not always this way.


In fact, in the years before the American Civil War, football was decades away from being crowned king, and other sports were pursued as occasional pastimes. Institutions of higher learning were small. Typically, "Old Main," a large central building imbued architecturally with the hopes and aspirations of the founders, housed the administration, served as the location for classrooms, and provided a space for social activities (Dober, 2007). Dormitories offered spartan conditions (Mendenhall, 1993). Fraternity life emerged out of literary and secret societies, and students made their homes in fraternity-sponsored lodges or houses (Birdseye, 1907).


A day in the life of a college student in the 1850s would likely include rising early and attending chapel. A good portion of the morning and early afternoon would be dedicated to lectures and recitations, and the evening would be devoted to studying. The afternoons, however, presented students with free time - time to escape faculty demands and the monotony of a curriculum that was sometimes boring, dry, or unchallenging and instead pursue their own interests and activities (Mendenhall, 1993; Smith, 1988). Often living in rural communities that offered few amusements, students made their own fun and gravitated at times toward the rebellious.


Indeed, though campuses may have been pastoral, the atmosphere often was not. To the contrary, collective student unrest was a hallmark of early campus life (Allmendinger, 1973), and it could be triggered by any of a number of motivations, some of the worst involving bad food (Ireland, 2012).Between 1766 and 1834, for example, Harvard was the site of no less than eight rebellions, which resulted in property damage, physical clashes between faculty and administrators, and mass student suspensions and expulsions (Ireland).


Male students’ physical pursuits were also areas of ambivalence and protest. Faculty and college administrator efforts to manage the engagement of male students in sport activities eventually distilled into two complementary but often competing models of sport participation - one being the eventual foundation for the intercollegiate athletics team model and the other being "the collegiate gymnastics model." While male students pursued rough team games such as shinny, a form of hockey that inspired faculty members to ban it as "low and unbecoming of gentlemen and scholars" (Rudolph, 1990, p. 151), gymnast-physicians advocated physical training regimens based on German and Swedish gymnastics to promote overall health and well-being (Soares, 1979).


As a result of that advocacy, schools in the Northeast started to build gymnasiums to support these programs, beginning with Harvard in 1820 (Seidentop & Vandermars, 2011). In 1860, Amherst College added a Department of Hygiene and Physical Education (Sweet, 2011) to address concern about student health and the rise of team sports that were becoming more attractive. As the nineteenth century wore on, however, students balked at the "mechanical," "business-like" approach to movement professed by their instructors (Rudolph, 1990, p. 153). As a result, the tide began to turn. "While pre - Civil War educators thought gymnastics foster[ed] self-control and were superior to most team sports, postwar students began to argue that athletics assuaged the monotony of the industrial-era curriculum" (Ingrassia, 2012, p. 22).


It is something of an irony, then, given the focus educators placed on student health concerns, that intercollegiate athletics owes its start to the exhaustion of a quite serious young man who was wearing himself thin studying for the Junior Exhibition at Yale University in 1852, where he delivered a speech titled "Roma Disrepta" in Latin (Mendenhall, 1993; Whiton, 1901). But so it was. James Whiton had brought honor to himself and his family by placing second in his class that May, missing out on the top spot by a mere fraction of a point. The effort left him "out of sorts," and a decision was made for him to return to New Hampshire with his family to rest and rejuvenate. On that trip home, Whiton met with a business associate of his father’s, James Elkins, an agent with the Boston, Concord, and Montreal (BC&M) railroad. In the course of their conversation, the idea for a rowing regatta was born (Mendenhall, 1997; Smith, 1988), and "the assurance of a free excursion and a jolly lark" was persuasive enough to get four teams (three from Yale and one from Harvard ) to sign on (Mendenhall, 1993, p. 16).


Patterned after the Oxford and Cambridge regatta in England (Ingrassia, 2012), this one featured three teams from Yale and one from Harvard competing on Lake Winnipesaukee in front of an audience of roughly a thousand spectators. The crowd included a future U.S. president, as well as local dignitaries and politicians, members of the "fairer sex" waving their handkerchiefs, enterprising vendors making the most of the occasion, and curious townspeople (Mendenhall, 1993; Smith, 1988). An original handbill promoting the event (figure 1.2) documents both the expense associated with building the boats and the discipline of the men who crewed them. A training race in the morning was followed by lunch, mineral water, ale, brandy, and cigars - a menu that apparently agreed with the members of the Harvard crew, who went on to victory in the afternoon, collecting a set of silver-tipped black walnut oars for their trouble (Mendenhall, 1993; Smith, 1988).



Promotional handbill for the 1852 Harvard - Yale regatta.


At a gala dinner and dance later that day, "toasts were drunk, and the oarsmen passed resolutions thanking their hosts and particularly the committee for the treatment they had received" (Mendenhall, 1993, p. 20). Collecting their free passes, they then boarded the BC&M and returned to their institutions, having taken part in an event that, despite one skeptic’s prediction that it would be a "frolic without sequel," became a model for other regattas and contributed to the growth of intercollegiate athletics on college campuses (Sack & Staurowsky, 1998).


From that point on, as intercollegiate athletics grew, questions arose about who should run them and how they should be run. Through the early part of the twentieth century, intercollegiate athletics for men were run by students in an entrepreneurial fashion similar to the approach taken by James Whiton at Yale. Organizers experimented with a range of financial models - creating student organizations and associations for the purpose of collecting dues to support their athletic endeavors; approaching businesses for sponsorship of teams and events; selling tickets to contests; and promoting fundraising campaigns.


These developments happened alongside the rapid expansion of educational institutions (as a result of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890) into states whose populations had not yet grown enough to support them (Sack & Staurowsky, 1998, p. 19). In this context, institutions faced greater competition for students and increasing pressure to move away from a classical curriculum in favor of programs that focused more on practical skills in order to appeal to an increasingly business-minded public. In turn, college administrators began to use advertising as a means of selling their institutions. "What they needed more than anything was a bridge that could link the high culture of the university with the mass culture of the broader society. . . . In the late 1800s few campus activities could better meet that need than intercollegiate sport" (Sack & Staurowsky,p. 20).


In particular, football - with its flare for spectacle, its assurances of masculine superiority, and its tests of valor, made for and by the sport pages (Oriard, 2001) - assumed a new status among the sports that were taking hold on college and university campuses. Though baseball, basketball, tennis, track and field, wrestling, and other sports also commanded interest among students, football’s star was ascending. This development was aided in no small measure by increasing commercialism, which took the form of building stadiums for the purposes of generating gate receipts and drawing large numbers of people to campuses, cultivating media attention, and forging relationships with boosters and sponsors (Smith, 1988; Sack & Staurowsky, 1998). Amid these changes, student leadership would give way to professional coaches hired to bring a scientific approach to coaching and performance. Schools that hired professional coaches, such as Yale and Harvard, would dominate the intercollegiate athletics scene well into the twentieth century - but not without a price to be paid (Smith; Sack & Staurowsky).


While administrators fed the growth of intercollegiate athletics, and student interest carried it forward, faculty members opposed the incorporation of athletics as mass spectacle. They warned of the dangers of increasing commercialism and professionalism and labeled the model a threat to the academic mission of higher education (Chu, 1989).Faculty strongly opposed the recruiting of "tramp athletes" who were "subsidized" (in other words, paid to play) and did not attend classes, as well as the "smash mouth" nature of football, where formations such as the flying wedge set the stage for bloodshed and occasionally death (McQuilkin & Smith, 1993).


Concern about threats to academic integrity, as well as students’ health and well-being, served as rallying points around which faculty mobilized to exert influence over college sport during this era. Indeed, according to Barr (1998, p. 5), "the high point of faculty control in intercollegiate athletics" occurred between 1895 and 1914, as they worked to form faculty-led conferences. These efforts contributed to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

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Administration of Intercollegiate Athletics

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