Money, Power, and College Sports in 1905 America

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

Anyhow, Mr. Deming was alarmed by the young Exeter man's experience.

"All the phenomena are there incarnate in the single budding athlete," he writes. "The village youth of prowess on the rural ball field detected by the keen-eyed Exeter 'scout;' the temptation unrecognized by the simple boy as a lure to professionalism; the quick transfer to the field of athletic heroics; and the first sowings of the seed to ripen into the masked academic 'ringer' at some big university."

He goes on to detail what he regards as the excessive budgets dedicated to athletics at 4 year universities, even when profitable. The athletic programs at Yale reported income of $106,396 in 1904 (roughly $2.5 million in today's dollars), he reported, a figure that represented the pay of 30 full professors at the time.

Annual financials for Yale athletics in 1904.

He worries, too, about the luxuries to which the student athletes are accustom. "'Traveling' has its parlor cars and its host of substitutes taken along, not to fill athletic gaps, but as a present privilege," he observes. "'Hotels and meals' have their best rooms and special fare... 'Trophies'–they cost $2,623 two years ago–spell gold and silver watch charms, silken flags ornately hung, photographs, individual, collective, and of rival teams..." And only then does he finally come to the core of his anti-athletics argument:

Thus at Yale, as at her sister universities, the athletic system falls into paradox. On the one side are the strenuous physical effort and discipline which in many respects are good; on the other side are the mercenary spirit, the wastage, and the luxury which are in all respects bad. The college athlete of the sward or of the water on the physical side finds temptation to masked professionalism, to the sacrifice of scholarship in athletic excess, and to the giving of undue dominance to the verb to win. But from all these, particularly if he is poor or of moderate means, he incurs less peril to character and purpose than in his transit from simple living and high thinking to the training table that costs $20 a week per man, and the fiscal regimen that it symbolizes. 

He will find in that changed life of his some things that must confuse his logic and his ideals. If he takes a dollar for private athletic instruction, he is unfrocked as an amateur; yet he may have daily and intimate contact with a high-salaried professional coach, and take from him all the tricks of the trade. He must not enter a contest for the smallest money prize; but he may barter his athletic fame for a commission from a tobacco trust or be subsidized through college by the grant of a score-card privilege. He will be told–very likely by some of his professors–that all this is but a reflection on the academic life of the mania of materialism in the outside world; but not so often told that, even if such is the facts, it rests upon the culture, the refinement, the scholarship and the ideals of the university to set the pace toward the opposite pole. Statistics of graduate vocations are showing us much in these days of the drift of the new college men away from the learned professions toward a life work of "affairs." It would be edifying if we could know how large a factor in those returns is supplied by the athletic group in whose college life the dollar is so vivid, so pervasive, and so potential. 

'Reflections of a Sub-Freshman's Father'

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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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