Money, Power, and College Sports in 1905 America

A moment in U.S. history as seen in the pages of The Outlook magazine.
Project Gutenberg

After 8 years in the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt left Washington, D.C., took up residence at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, and found a job. His first commute as a private citizen happened on March 10, 1909: he took a 7:58 a.m. train to Long Island City, boarded a crowded ferry boat to Manhattan, disembarked at a slip on 34th Street, hopped on a crosstown streetcar, transferred to a northbound line at Madison Avenue, and finally arrived at 48th street. His employer was on the 7th floor. His occupation: magazine editor. 

The Outlook was a progressive newsweekly that began publication in 1870 and kept going until 1935. The bulk of its run is now available online. Today's installment in my occasional series looking at American history through old magazines will focus on the issue published Saturday, July 1, 1905, when its future associate editor was still president. That is the best indication of its politics that I can give. Its ads are sprinkled through this article so that you may see them for yourself. And the table of contents illustrates the range of subjects covered:


The Cover

Several years ago, The Atlantic published a well-received cover story on money and power in college athletics, "The Shame of College Sports." More than a century earlier, The Outlook dedicated a much plainer cover to that same subject:  

The editors explained their decision to publish two stories on college athletics by arguing that they "have largely lost their recreative value because undergraduates have taken them too seriously, and have not been of educative value because college authorities have not taken them seriously enough." Other alleged ills included professionalism, violation of rules, "the solicitation of athletic school-boys," extravagant spending, and "the concentration of effort in the specialized training of a few instead of the general development of many," a feature of college athletics that is universal and totally unquestioned in America today.

One suggested reform was for colleges to take control of their athletic programs away from professional team coaches, for reasons illustrated by a rowing anecdote: 

Before a boat race between Harvard and Cornell at Cambridge, the Harvard captain, acting within his rights, deprived the visiting crew of a chance to row over the course. This action humiliated every Harvard man who heard of it; for it was the action of a hostile commander, not the action of a host. The Harvard captain had merely acted on the advice of the professional coach–a man in no way responsible to the University, unacquainted with Harvard traditions, and without an inheritance of college sentiment and idealism. He was hired to turn out a winning crew, and he gave this advice simply in the performance of his duty.

The magazine went on to posit that intercollegiate athletics had better be taken more seriously, because it affords "the principle medium in which the undergraduate's social morality is practically developed" and "the most potent means for the development of character." How many college coaches today would make winning subservient to treating the opposing team as esteemed guests? My guess is that the authors of the 1905 Outlook article would shudder to know.


'The Money Power in College Athletics'

The cover story's author, Clarence Deming, is a Yale alumnus who dissents from the large athletic budgets he witnessed during his scholastic days, as well as the tendency to recruit young talent at ever more impressionable ages. He begins by quoting a letter from a prep school student who explains how he wound up at Phillips Exeter Academy, where enrollment was flagging due to 5 years of athletic losses*. The youngster had established a reputation in baseball, and a man he knew asked if he wanted to return to school, where he would get tuition and rent covered:

I was to start at Christmas. Mother and I talked it over and thought it would be a good thing to take it. A week or two afterward the same man wanted to know how I would like football. I told him first-rate, and it all ended with my leaving _____ and coming over here immediately. I tried for the big team and got there.

The football game was grand. We pushed into their center time and time again until we had it all worn out, and then ran the ball right up the field. All one side the field was blue and white, Andover's colors, and the other side Crimson and Gray, our colors. There were 5,000 people in attendance. When the game finished, the crowd rushed into the field and swung us on their shoulders and away we went down the field to the dressing-room. Fireworks, horns, etc., were started before we left Andover, and when we got to Exeter they got out the band and we marched all over town and we made every one of the faculty make a speech. Then there was a monstrous bonfire on the campus amidst the fireworks and general rejoicing. Everybody was shaking hands and cheering, and, in fact, I never saw or experienced anything like it before.

It happens that NFL quarterback Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman trophy at USC, was in my high school class. Our teams won state championships in football, basketball, and several other sports besides that year. I can imagine us caravanning back to campus and even a bonfire. But a popular demand that every one of the faculty make a speech? I wish I knew what was said in the Exeter speeches!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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