Sports in America have long reflected and reinforced the character traits that created the country: teamwork, discipline, toughness, fair play, courage, hard work. Journalist Robert Lipsyte noted that sports rose in popularity and became surrogate tests of moral timbre once the nation was settled coast to coast: “After the closing of the Western frontier in 1890, there was no place left for American men to transform themselves into the stalwarts who would keep democracy alive and lead the country to global greatness. No more real redskins and bears to test our mettle. So sport became the new frontier.”
Elite college undergraduates created football as a means of waging controlled war on foes, as training for the real world. For poor immigrants, it became a way to assimilate into American culture. Social reformers proclaimed organized physical fitness a path to broader personal improvement. Sports taught and instilled the virtues of endurance, self-control, overcoming, and sacrifice. In 1869, the YMCA began building gymnasiums with donated funds, to strengthen the minds, bodies, and spirits of young Americans. Boston YMCA staffer Robert Roberts coined the term “bodybuilding” and developed the first exercise classes and regimes that many of today’s gyms, trainers, and athletes follow. To instill confidence and rescue skills in young boys, the Y popularized swimming lessons. It fed teamwork, conditioning, and dexterity by building the first youth basketball leagues.
Philanthropist Cecil Rhodes was one of the first philanthropists to recognize the linkage of mental acuity to physical vigor. Having been brought up in South Africa he saw firsthand how rough and demanding conditions could make young people more vigorous and self-reliant. Throughout his life he advocated for sports as a useful training ground for adult competence and character. He was concerned that leading academics were often too feeble and too secluded from the rough-and-tumble world, so his 1902 will establishing the Rhodes Scholarships to educate future world leaders at Oxford stipulated that recipients be more than bookworms. His ideal student would not only show strong scholastic achievement but also possess “the energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports,” devotion to duty, dedication to public service, and “moral force of character.”
Andrew Carnegie also saw sports as an important part of a well-rounded education. Although known for building great libraries and esteeming mental self-improvement, Carnegie gave funds to Princeton’s rowing team rather than its academic program. For years, Princeton presidents James McCosh and Woodrow Wilson had failed to interest Carnegie in donating to the school. Then while sitting for a portrait in 1902, Carnegie was convinced by the painter, a former varsity rower at Princeton, to create an artificial lake for the team to practice on, with a boathouse to boot. Lake Carnegie opened in 1906 as one of the world’s great sports-training facilities. At the grand opening, Wilson pitched Carnegie on a second donation, to Princeton’s graduate college, saying “we needed bread, and you gave us cake.” Carnegie refused.
The University of Chicago, John Rockefeller’s creation, once recruited students for its football program as many schools do today. Founding president William Harper, who used mass advertising and public-relations tactics to attract students and faculty, loved how sports united the campus. He hired Amos Stagg to lead the athletics department, hoping thereby to increase enrollment. Stagg revolutionized the then-nascent game of football, set many of its current standards, and created the first football conference and the bowl system. Stagg was also linked to many of football’s corruptions, however, being criticized for questionable recruiting methods, for allowing athletes to miss classes before games, for pressing professors to be lenient with player grades, and other controversies.
Chicago’s fifth president, Robert Hutchins, disliked athletics, believing they distracted the student body and professors. He hated seeing players valorized. So he eliminated the physical-education major and forced Stagg to retire. Over the 1939 Christmas break, while the campus was empty, Hutchins announced that the University of Chicago would no longer have a football team. Students and alumni were furious: The school’s distinguished history included the first tenured coach, the first Heisman trophy winner, and founding the Big Ten Conference. Donations and enrollment decreased for several years. Football returned to the university in 1969 as a varsity sport, and eventually at the Division III level with no athletic scholarships. The current stadium has 1,600 seats—old Stagg Field, which had 55,000 seats, is now a 4.5 million-volume library.
Another Midwestern university set a different course at that same time. The Great Depression was a desperate time for Oklahoma, vortex of the Dust Bowl. The state lost almost a fifth of its population, and locals were humiliated by their depiction in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was banned from the University of Oklahoma campus. Along came philanthropist Lloyd Noble, a sandy-haired oil driller who struck gold in the famed Seminole field. He set up a foundation that poured hundreds of millions of dollars into technical assistance for the region’s beleaguered farmers and ranchers, and provided funds to lure talented professors and medical researchers to his alma mater.
A longtime regent of OU, Noble also decided that a powerful football team could help revive the beaten-down spirits of Oklahomans. He built athletic facilities and hired skilled coaches, including the legendary Bud Wilkinson. By 1957 the football team had won 47 consecutive games and three national championships. Sooners didn’t feel like doormats anymore.
This is one of five sidebars to John Feinstein’s feature article “The Passion and Pitfalls of Giving to College Sports”