The Status of Athletics in American Colleges

ONE of the popular delusions about colleges is the notion that college students are a race apart: that they have temptations quite different from and more numerous than those met by other young men; that they have different amusements, different standards, — in a word, a different human nature. Those who live among students know that they are, in the main, very like their twin brothers at home or in business: they are not much wiser, and are as prone to do absurd things; on the other hand, they have more leisure, more command of their time, a wider range of interest, and a tickling sense of belonging to a guild of learning; on the whole, they are more likely than other young men to avoid bad or vicious habits.

The same principle applies in athletics as in more important things. College athletes are not a peculiar genus of the homo juvenis; they are only amateur athletes. College athletic clubs are governed by the same rules and principles as other amateur clubs. Yet there are some reasons why the interest in college athletics is sharper, why abuses are more apt to creep in, and why public attention should be directed more carefully to the manner in which college athletics are conducted.

That there is a great public interest in college athletics is plain twice a year from the items and squibs of the daily press ; and this is an interest which has grown up within the last thirty years. The enjoyment of sports is as old as the toys of Egyptian children, or the ballgame of Nausicaa and her maids.

Σϕɑίρη τɑί δἂρ' ὲлɑιϛον...ɑί δ'ὲлί μɑκρὸν ἂνσαν.
“ With the ball they played, . . . and mightily they shrieked.”

The contest of animal with animal, of men with animals, and still more of men with men, has excited Greek, Roman, and barbarian. There is no doubt that a stand-up fight between two trained men or bodies of men, whether fought with fists, rapiers, Winchester rifles, or army corps, is the most absorbing of human diversions. In modern athletic sports, however, the contest is not usually against a man’s person ; our preference is for races and competitions rather than for set-tos.

This milder and manlier form of sport is due to England. While German youths still exercised with a sword and American youths with a trotting-sulky, young Englishmen ran, rowed, played cricket, and revived football and tennis. The development has been due in part to the ancient customs of the people, in part to climate, in great part to the English schools. School-boys’ sports have, during the past fifty years, been carried into the universities and into private life.

To England, then, we owe the example followed in our outdoor sports; and in England the practice has been brought under certain generally accepted principles. In the first place, no sport among gentlemen can be directed against the life or limbs of an antagonist. To inflict bodily injury was the great object of the Greek boxer and the Roman gladiator. Now, even in boxing, to wound is to be awkward. For better security, almost all athletic sports avoid personal contact; players strike the ball, but not one another.

To carry out the principle of avoiding bodily injuries, and to make the game more interesting, a second principle is applied: the sports are all hedged in by elaborate rules. Every complicated game, especially football, seems to the uninitiated an elaborate system of how-not-to-do-it. Strength, fleetness, and agility are to be applied only in specified ways. Here is an example, taken from the Intercollegiate football rules: “ A player may throw or pass the ball in any direction except toward opponent’s goal.” Yet the sole object of the game is somehow to move the ball precisely in the direction forbidden by throw or pass. The basis of the sport is always the tacit assumption that the game is between gentlemen who wish to win, but who accept and observe the limitations set by the rules. The principle that an umpire shall be provided has been established, but the practice is intended only to meet the case of a gentlemanly disagreement. Only under the intense competition of the last ten years has it been found necessary to provide double umpires, or to give an umpire summary powers of punishment where a player willfully breaks rules. The necessity shows that the standard of sport has fallen; it shows that a professional spirit has crept in.

What is a professional ? He is defined and set apart by the third great principle of modern sport. A sharp line is drawn between those who practice sport for their own pleasure and those who practice it for money. Here is the statement of the distinction, laid down in the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, defining an amateur : —

“ One who has not entered in an open competition ; or for either a stake, public or admission money, or entrance fee; or under a fictitious name ; or has not competed with or against a professional for any prize or where admission fee is charged ; or who has not instructed, pursued, or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood, or for gain or any emolument; or where membership of any athletic club of any kind was not brought about or does not continue because of any mutual understanding, express or implied, whereby his becoming or continuing a member of such club would be of any pecuniary benefit to him whatever, direct or indirect; and who shall in other and all respects conform to the rules and regulations of this organization.”

For so rigid a rule there are abundant reasons. A man who competes from a love of sport prefers not to compete with a man who has gained superior skill by making his sport an occupation. A gentleman has no reason for concealing his name. If a man’s success in his calling depends upon his winning, or if his livelihood is at stake, he is more apt to break or to strain rules; and the experience of the world has shown that a man who receives money for winning a contest may sometimes, by the offer of more money, be induced to lose. Contests of professionals, therefore, are not so sure to be carried through on the merits of the competitors. From the element of trickery, professional sports offer a field for betting and for other forms of gambling. There are hundreds of perfectly honest professionals, but in accepting money for their services they give up the element of personal pleasure, and change their sport into a task.

In America, boat-racing and games of ball are as old as boyhood, rivers, and town commons, but in the colleges and outside they were very simple and unorganized school-boy sports till about thirty years ago. Regular teams began in boating, and there was a race with Yale in 1852. In 1858, the present president of Harvard University was a member of the famous Harvard crew which brought the first six-oared shell in ahead of a rival Boston boat.

The Civil War gave a singular impetus to field sports of all kinds. Perhaps the boys in blue brought home a love of fresh air and exercise from their marches and bivouacs ; perhaps the German turnvereine taught Americans the use of their muscles; perhaps gentle croquet led to more active sports. In 1863 came the first organized games of intercollegiate baseball. The sport spread throughout the country, and the college teams met on equal, sometimes on superior terms, — the mighty and forgotten Lowells, Peconics, and Redstockings. The Canadians taught ns football and lacrosse about 1877. Lawn tennis and bicycling came in a little later. Amateur records in track athletics began to be taken about 1875.

For the conduct of these sports there are permanent and recognized amateur organizations outside of the colleges; athletic clubs have begun to spring up, with expensive houses and apparatus; but the chief seat of amateur sport is in the colleges. Here are assemblages of young men having unusual control over their own time; here is a strong feeling of esprit de corps; here, out of the many players offering themselves, a first-rate team may easily be formed. Not one in twenty of the spectators at a professional baseball game knows one of the players personally, or ever himself handles the bat. The athletic spirit in the colleges is greatly stimulated by the fact that the whole college feels a personal interest in the players. College authorities acknowledge, willingly or unwillingly, that athletic sports must be allowed and even encouraged. There is a growing sentiment that exercise is essential for the most efficient use of the mind. In the colleges are the best facilities both for exercise and for contest. No large college is now considered complete without a good gymnasium and some instruction in field sports. The college athletic associations are more numerous and important than other amateur organizations. In the colleges, therefore, the growth and effect of athletics are more clearly discernible than elsewhere.

The first distinct result of athletics, as seen in the colleges, is a considerable increase in the average of bodily strength. The popular caricature of the college student is no longer the stoopshouldered, long-haired grind, but a person of abnormal biceps and rudimentary brains. As a fact, the most popular man in any college class to-day is usually a good student who can do something in athletics better than anybody else. The effect of this accepted standard of complete manliness is seen on men who never take part in athletic contests. The bodily vigor and health of students in the colleges have visibly risen in twenty years: the variety of exercise is greater; a larger number take exercise. Experienced directors and trainers apply scientific methods of developing the body. Dr. Sargent states, as the result of 3537 measurements since 1879, that he has now a record of 248 men in Harvard College, each of whom is stronger than was the strongest man in 1880. Of course there is a tendency to admire muscle and strength for themselves instead of as a means of health or enjoyment, but the physical results of athletic sports are highly beneficial.

An equally striking change is the great development of skill in athletics. The famous baseball teams of the sixties could not now make a run against a good nine ; the records in athletics are constantly being broken. This skill is gained, however, at the cost of increased expenditure of time. Rowing men must settle down to their work in December, if they hope to win in July. Captains of teams spend more and more thought on selecting and placing players, on training, on planning campaigns. Hence college teams far surpass all other amateurs, and are but little inferior to the best professional teams. The inevitable result is that, to the participants, the element of sport is fast disappearing. It is very agreeable to be recognized as a “ star player ” and to travel with a team ; but any one who watches a great contest must admit that it is play only for the excited spectators ; the participants find both practice and match hard, unremitting work. To suppose that this fact discourages men from trying for the teams is a mistake. Where one man gets on a team, ten try ; where ten try, twenty play “ for the fun of the thing.” The standard of skill required for enjoyment in a “scrub” game has not been raised. Nevertheless, the great matches, especially in football, are coming to have the interest of gladiatorial contests ; players are not there to pass a pleasant afternoon or to show their skill, but to beat. “ It is magnificent, but it is— war.”

Such elaborate contests cannot be carried on without great preparation and expense. In addition to gymnasium trainers, paid by the college authorities, many teams have coaches, often professionals. Another great source of expense is the training-tables ; the board often costs double the ordinary rate, and the difference — sometimes the whole — is paid by the management. Whenever a team travels, it makes up a little array of players, managers, and attendants, whose expenses are paid by the organization. Men so solicitous to win spare no money that will insure greater comfort. The incidental expenses for such organizations are sometimes appalling : uniforms, accoutrements, the traveling expenses of managers and delegates, the keeping of grounds in order, — these are but a part of the items. In one single year, for a campaign lasting about seven weeks, the Harvard FootBall Association has paid out $6361.63, or an average of $350 for every actual player. On the other hand, the same organization has received in one year upwards of $11,400. To handle and judiciously to expend sums so considerable might perhaps give the financial officers of athletic associations good business training ; but the money is usually handled carelessly and expended lavishly. Here is a verbatim transcript of an account rendered by the treasurer of a college organization a few years ago : —


Subscriptions, season tickets, and other sources ..... $2917.69

Gate receipts .... 3291.74



Uniforms ..... $320.50

Yale-Amherst trip . . . 371.45

Brown-Princeton .... 318.36

New Haven (exhibition) . . 190.06

New York (Yale game) . . . 410.42

Umpires ..... 100.00

Printing, advertising, and sundries . 3443.94


Balance in Bank . . . 1053.71


One of the most vexatious things about college athletics is the india-rubber inertia which makes it difficult to induce any treasurer or manager to keep full and lucid accounts and to take vouchers. Not very long ago, a perfectly honest young fellow, who had been asked to account for the magnitude of certain expenditures, explained in good faith that he was sure a particular bill had been thrice presented and paid; but he had taken no receipts.

As expense has increased, various moral evils have grown, also. In all the older colleges there are men who receive from home more money than they can put to good account for their personal expenses. Among that class of men betting grows up ; and the example is followed by a few who can less afford to lose. Betting on the field can be repressed by denying the use of grounds to the organization which permits it; outside betting cannot be controlled, save by public opinion ; and, as it takes the insidious form of loyally “ backing up the team,” college public opinion is not sufficiently pronounced against the practice. Of late years, the custom has sprung up for bodies of college men to attend the theatres in the city where the great game has that day been played, and, by cheering, the waving of flags, and the interruption of the performance, to make their preferences known. An excited, irresponsible state of mind seems to be induced by the tremendous competition of the greater sports, and to be more marked in the larger cities.

A similar excitement manifests itself among the general public. The colleges at Cambridge and New Haven were nearly deserted on the day of the recent Yale-Harvard game at Springfield. In New York, on Thanksgiving Day, 1889, there was paid for tickets to the YalePrinceton game more than $25,000 ; and people in North Carolina mountain towns watched the telegraphic bulletin. Not even Patti can command such audiences or take so much money for one performance. The newspapers give the public the impression that the whole interest of the colleges is absorbed in gladiatorial shows.

To the evils just mentioned — irregularity, extravagance, excitement — there is added a still more serious evil, that of professionalism in college athletics. The first approach to the professional spirit is found in the few young men who become regular members of the college in order to develop and exhibit their skill as athletes. No college ought to have a place for such men. Occasionally they enter late, and disappear at the end of the athletic season ; more frequently they keep on, year after year, preventing other possible candidates from getting on the teams. Another phase of the disposition to make sport the end rather than the means is the pressure brought to bear on athletic men, who have graduated from college, to return and to go upon teams. A further advance of the same spirit is seen in those students who accept from proprietors of summer hotels offers of board, and sometimes of incidental expenses, as an inducement to play during the season, and who thus come within the strict definition of professionals. Another step is to receive money for occasional games ; and, finally, a considerable number of college students or graduates have accepted summer employment from professional clubs, or have become teachers of athletics, and have thus separated themselves from all amateur organizations, within college or outside. Some of these men have, by their sport, acquired the means honorably to clear off college debts, or to provide for a professional education. No one can complain of their taking money for the practice of their skill ; but the element of pleasure or of physical benefit — that is, the element of sport — disappears, and the purpose for which college athletics exist ceases, the moment a man begins to consider his skill a pecuniary resource.

Serious as are the evils connected with athletic sports, the writer believes that they are more than counterbalanced by the effect on the health of the students, and by the opportunity given for working off youthful spirits in a harmless way. Students themselves are sensible of the evils, but the expectation that they would in their own way find a remedy has not been realized. Students’ organizations are loose ; college generations are very short; traditions quickly fade ; and there is lack of permanent policy. Captains usually serve a single year, and each feels like one of the ten Greek generals on his day of command. It is almost impossible for one college to obtain any reform without negotiation with other colleges, and diplomacy enough to secure an extradition treaty with Great Britain. Organizations controlled by graduates do better because they hold the undergraduates down to a definite policy. Those colleges in which the graduates have most influence, as Yale and Princeton, have proved upon the field and the river the excellence of graduate management. But the system is not very much freer than that of the untrammeled undergraduates from the evil of extravagance, sharp practice, and wastefulness of time. The teams are better ; the morale of the sports is little improved.

College Faculties have been unwilling to take responsibility for athletic contests, and have from the first rather tolerated them as an unavoidable evil. They began by legislating against broken windows and broken heads. As it was evident that athletic sports were a vigorous growth, the next step was to make provision for exercise by building new gymnasiums. In some cases physical examinations have been required, as at Amherst, or exercise has been made obligatory, as at Cornell.

Then came a time when it was discovered that students were making appointments which took them away from college work, or which unduly absorbed the attention of their fellows. A mild system of interference was adopted, with gentle rules as to time, place, and number of games. Some colleges, notably Yale, have gone no further, preferring to leave the whole matter to students. Additional legislation has been difficult: any serious limitations have been resented by the students ; and the smaller colleges have hesitated to take any step which might keep students away. Most of the larger colleges, however, have appointed Faculty committees on athletics, whose office has been to exercise moral suasion over the students, and sometimes actually to regulate. There has been little interference with student organizations ; money has been collected by subscription, and it has been a delicate matter to protect voluntary subscribers from their own agents. With the present large revenues from gate money a system of audit has been found indispensable. In some colleges it is exercised by graduate committees. At Harvard, by strenuous exertion, the organizations have been brought to agree to the appointment of a graduate treasurer, and to the deposit of surpluses arising from gate money, to be used for general athletic purposes.

The evils incident to the keen competition of intercollegiate athletics have received little check from individual Faculties. The trouble is, of course, that any restriction put upon a team is a handicap, unless applied to its competitors. Half a dozen years ago, therefore, Harvard proposed a system of general regulation by the authorities of all the principal colleges ; but it was found impossible to get an agreement. For a time Harvard forbade her teams to play against professionals. That restriction has since been withdrawn, as tending to keep up an irritation between students and Faculty: every defeat was ascribed to the want of practice with professionals.

The futility of the restriction was shown by the fact that in the face of it the professional spirit steadily grew at Harvard and elsewhere. Evasion of the rules became more common ; men were brought into the colleges who had no serious purpose of study; the behavior of men on the field was rough and sometimes coarse. The governing boards began to take alarm, and the Harvard Overseers, in the spring of 1888, came almost to the resolution to prohibit intercollegiate contests. At this point a committee of the Faculty made an investigation, and reported that “ intercollegiate contests stimulate athletics, stimulate general exercise, and thus favorably affect the health and moral tone of the university.” They suggested a mixed committee of members from the Faculty, graduates, and undergraduates, with adequate powers. That committee was appointed, and has formulated a policy of regulation.

The difficulties of restriction have already been set forth. Since the principal evils of athletics are those of excess rather than of inherent wrong, they are hard to regulate by statute. In many cases, they arise from a neglect by the students to look after the details of their own contests, and such neglect cannot be supplemented by supervision. Busy Faculties have neither the time nor the inclination to form and hold a consistent policy in regard to athletics. It is felt that athletic sports are only a very incidental and subsidiary part of college life, and that control of them requires the time and interest of professors who are better employed in teaching ; and hence that they should either be unrestricted or wholly prohibited. Such is the argument of those who advocate the prohibition of intercollegiate contests. It seems to furnish an easy solution to say, “ Let the boys attend to their studies.”

To solve the question in this offhand manner is impossible. If there were no athletic clubs or athletic young men outside the colleges, perhaps the matter might be one for academic discipline; if intercollegiate contests were less attractive to students and their friends, to graduates and men interested in the colleges, they might be relegated to the place they occupied twenty years ago, and again become simply an agreeable diversion for half holidays and vacations. If athletics had not many distinctly bracing effects on the physical and moral tone of young men, the system of contests might be treated as an evil per se. If there were not at bottom a healthy moral sentiment among the students, opposed to professionalism and kindred evils, the governing boards might attempt to supply an artificial conscience. No votes of the Faculty or other governing boards can permanently put an end to intercollegiate athletic contests at the present day, because nine tenths of the students and at least seven tenths of the graduates consider them desirable.

Can, then, no principles of limitation and restriction be found, which students, graduates, and governing boards will unite in thinking reasonable ? Most certainly there are such principles. The first business of every man, whether in a bank, in a law office, or in a college, is to perform his daily task : students, therefore, will readily accommodate themselves to regulations intended to bring contests out of the hours of college exercises, and to restrict the number of games played abroad. Important contests at a distance from home, or in a city not the seat of either contesting college, plainly lead to irregularities and to interference with study, and the effects of the excitement thus induced extend far beyond the day of the contest. The experience of the Harvard Committee on the Regulation of Athletic Sports has shown that students are candid enough to admit the necessity of reducing the geographical compass of their sports. The first principle of regulation is to subordinate athletics to study.

The second principle is that every organization of every kind which goes before the public as emanating from a college, or bearing its name, shall present none but genuine representatives of that college, and shall do nothing discreditable to alma mater. The principle applies as much to theatrical and musical performances as to athletic contests. No man ought to be permitted to sing, to act, or to contest as a member of a college organization, if he is under college censure, or if he is a student only for a few months, or if he comes only to pursue his favorite amusement. At Harvard such men are now ineligible, either by Faculty regulation or by the action of the athletic committee ; and the students second the policy. It is equally important to keep alive the feeling that the members of teams compete for the fame of their college, and not for any pecuniary gain to themselves : for this reason, students who have enjoyed a money profit from the practice of their sport must be excluded rigorously, although their regular standing as members of the college may be unquestioned. Here, again, so soon as students clearly perceive how and why professionalism degrades amateur sport, they heartily join in an attempt to keep out professionals.

A third principle is that of publicity. No organization which, from its connection with a college, secures subscriptions from undergraduates and graduates, enjoys the use of college grounds or buildings, or appears before the public under the college name has any right to conceal its accounts, or to refuse to the authorities of the college a knowledge of its methods, its system of training, and the men who are to make up its teams. The system of irresponsible handling of large funds, of irresponsible selection of players, and of irresponsible diplomacy with other colleges is one which acknowledges only half the principle of freedom. A boy chooses his college, but abides by its discipline. A student chooses or accepts his studies ; but, in every college, his instructors require him to satisfy them that he pursues the work that he has undertaken. College athletic sports, as now conducted, are no longer private enterprises ; much more than college societies they affect the good name and the efficiency of individual colleges and of college education, and the college authorities have a right to know what goes on.

In applying the three principles above specified, — the subordination of athletics, exclusion of men not representative, and publicity, — the coöperation of students is essential, and is freely given. There is no want of good will, but a “ plentiful lack ” of good business habits. Somewhere in the organization of a university there must therefore be authority to require the observance of rules laid down under the three principles enunciated ; and the judicious application of such rules requires the expenditure of a great deal of time. The detail will inevitably fall into confusion if not carefully looked after, for the simple reason that college students are boyish, thoughtless, and slack, and that college generations change quickly. The time necessary for supervision is well spent, if it brings young men to see the reasons for a punctilious standard in the selection and management of athletic teams. Penalties may be simple, and yet effective. To deprive a man of the privilege of taking part in athletic contests is often a memorable punishment to him and to his fellows ; to deprive an organization of the use of grounds or buildings, for sufficient cause, will prevent the recurrence of the cause. Within the limitations suggested, students should be left to control their own affairs and to make their own arrangements, without being troubled by successive petty enactments. Regulations should be few ; conferences should be many.

In whom should the authority over athletic sports primarily be vested ? The Harvard Committee on the Regulation of Athletic Sports is composed of nine members : three members of the Faculty and three graduates, all six appointed for a year by the Corporation and confirmed by the Overseers ; and three undergraduates, chosen by representatives of athletic organizations. Its action may be subjected to revision by the governing boards. The combination has proved singularly harmonious; and the undergraduate members habitually show a spirit of open-mindedness and conservatism which reflects the best sentiment of the college.

This is not a perfect system, but it is suggestive of methods which ought to prevail everywhere. Athletic sports and competitions and intercollegiate contests are an established part of the life of American colleges. The evils incident to them can best be met by judicious legislation, founded on a few reasonable principles, and by giving to students full freedom within these limitations.

Albert Bushnell Hart.