Athletics and the College

THE abolition of all intercollegiate athletic contests involves the destruction of many phases of undergraduate life very dear to the college man. To mention the subject seriously is to brave the epithet ‘old fogey,’ and to hear the scornful laugh of those who believe that nothing can successfully assail the position of intercollegiate athletics as one of the most valuable features of college life. It is a fact, however, that many thoughtful men, occupying positions of influence in college administration, are at present contemplating with alarm abuses which have crept into this phase of undergraduate activity, — abuses which to them seem so serious and so deeply rooted as to justify the abolition of the whole system of intercollegiate contests.

These abuses have nothing to do with the roughness of some of the games, or with the conflict between play and work; they have to do with the pernicious influence of athletics upon the moral life of the whole undergraduate body. Participation in college athletics may indeed teach control of temper, abstinence from dissipation, and willingness to subordinate one’s self to the efficient working of an organization; but it also teaches trickery and deceit. Training for a college team in these days furnishes a Fagin-like drill in complex dishonesty which far overbalances any benefits. At least that is the belief of many careful observers, — and it is a belief which experience as a student and a teacher in three universities, and an intimate acquaintanceship with athletics in a score of others have convinced me to be well-founded.

In competition among gentlemen there is no place for the man who ‘stacks’ the cards and signals his partner across the table; who deliberately miscalls the score at tennis, or who picks his ball out of a bad lie on the golf links. He is barred from reputable clubs, and is not welcomed in respectable society. Even the professional gambler respects fair play, and repudiates the ‘crooked game.’ Yet college men, so often the soul of honor in all their other activities, see no wrong in deliberately and slyly violating in football, baseball, and kindred sports any rule which may diminish their chances of victory. A few illustrations will make this clearer.

To weaken the opposing side by ‘putting out’ its strongest players is a common practice in football. It may be done legitimately by concentrating the attack upon one man until exhaustion forces him to give way to a substitute; but in actual fact few strong players leave the game for this reason; they are more often temporarily disabled by a kick in the ribs, a knee thrust into the stomach, or a twist of the neck slyly given under cover of the play. Gleeful discussion of the success of such tactics can be heard among the players after many intercollegiate contests. The progress of every football game is interrupted by the referee’s penalizing first one side, then the other for ‘holding,’ — an unfair use of the hands and arms. Every such penalty means that some one has cheated, whether involuntarily or with deliberation, yet the spectators make no comment, and in college circles the guilty players lose standing only in so far as the coach scolds them for being caught.

Not many years ago I was watching the football practice at a well-known eastern university. The coach was a graduate of the university, and a mature business man of good repute, and I had heard members of the faculty express satisfaction that the students were going to be in the hands of so reliable a man. I saw this coach drilling the linemen in an illegal play, the essence of which was to swing the fist violently into the opponent’s face. After some minutes he vented his disgust with an awkward pupil in these words: —

‘Not that way, not that way, you dub! You have got to be nifty to get away with that play.’

I see no objection to one man’s using his fist upon another, provided that it be part of the game. I see every objection to teaching a boy to ‘be nifty and get away with it.’

In a basket-ball game it sometimes happens that a player gets the ball close to the basket. None of his opponents is between him and the goal, and there is no chance for any one to get in front of him to block his throw in a legitimate way. The only defense is to rush at him from behind, and to shove him violently enough to spoil his aim. Such a play is a foul under the rules, but it is made time and again, because the well-trained player reasons thus:—

‘If I do not shove this man, he will almost certainly shoot a goal. If I do, he will not get the goal, and there is a chance that the referee will not see me; and even if I am caught, the penalty for the foul counts less for the other side than the goal which I am going to prevent.’

No account is taken of the fact that the man has won this favorable position by skill and quickness, and is entitled by the rules to what he can make of it. The same tactics are followed in regard to certain rules forbidding the blocking of opponents, for these rules are particularly hard to enforce. It is no uncommon thing to hear players explaining after a game, that they missed this or that play because they were blocked; and seldom is there any expression of resentment at the unfairness. It was forbidden by the rules, but the opponent ‘got away with it’ and was entitled to the fruits.

The same principle is at the bottom of ‘cutting the bases’ in baseball. A man knows when he has failed to touch a base, yet time after time we see a runner cut wide of a base, and his opponents protest in vain, because the umpire has not seen the play. Meanwhile the man who by violation of a rule has shortened the distance he has had to run, grins complacently because he ‘got away with it,’ and his college mates among the spectators applaud him as heartily as if he had scored by skill instead of trickery. In the few foregoing illustrations no reference is made to the faults committed in the heat of the contest. A man may lose his temper and break his opponent’s nose, and still be honest; he may get over-anxious and start play before the signal, and yet not be a cheat; he cannot strengthen his playing by an assortment of intentional tricks that are expressly forbidden by the rules, and still be entitled to the respect of good sportsmen.

The question of the eligibility of men to represent their colleges in intercollegiate contests calls forth tactics similar to those in vogue in the actual conduct of the games. There is a rule providing that no man who has competed in athletics for money shall play on a college team, and every candidate is required to give a signed statement that he has not violated this rule. In spite of this requirement there are constantly charges and countercharges of professionalism made by one college against another. It appears that the college athlete does not think highly of the word of honor of his fellows. Every charge of professionalism is an accusation of lying against the man involved. The fact that the implied falsehood is ignored, and that attention is given only to investigating the man’s amateur standing, shows clearly that prevarication in this matter is not considered a grievous fault.

As a matter of fact, every man who has lived among college athletes knows that many of them have at some time received money, directly or indirectly, for athletic competition. Actual proof of professionalism in any one case is as difficult as proof of bribe-taking among aldermen. Payments are not made by check, and are often disguised in more or less clever ways. I know of one athlete who received a goodly sum for acting as watchman of a building. His duty was to sleep in the building every night. In the day-time he played baseball with a professional team. I know of another who played a game with a professional team, — for which he was not paid. But after the game the manager went to his room and said, —

’I’ll bet you twenty dollars that you can’t jump over that suit-case.’

The bet was taken, and the jump was successfully made. Both of these men afterwards went to college and signed a statement that they had not ‘competed in athletics for money, directly or indirectly.’ I believe that a large percentage of the men playing college baseball are guilty of dishonesty of this kind. The evil, of course, rests not in the playing for money, but in the cool denial of the fact.

Another eligibility rule in effect in most colleges is that no man shall compete in college athletics more than four years, yet I have learned of many cases in which men, after representing a small western college for a year or more, have entered a large eastern university and played under its colors for a full four years. To do this they had to deny their participation in athletics at the first school.

If practices like the above involved only the guilty players, they could be attributed to the ‘black sheep’ sure to be found in every group of men, and would not be ground for the arraignment of college athletics in general. They are, however, known to the other players, and in some degree to the whole body of undergraduates, which becomes so imbued with the spirit of ‘ anything to win’ that it supports them, and is therefore equally guilty. At every big intercollegiate contest you will hear among the spectators denunciation of the ‘dirty play’ of the visiting team, when similar play by members of the home team has passed uncondemned, or mayhap has been praised in a gleeful, ‘Did you see Jack “get” that fellow? He’s a slick one.’

Except at a few institutions of notoriously low standards, college men are of very much the same type, and, on the average, one college team is no better or no worse than another. Why then do undergraduates so seldom rise up and denounce the tactics of their own representatives, but so frequently demand the ruling-out of this or that player from a rival school?

At my own college we learned, one autumn, that our baseball captain had played as a professional all summer. Our concern was not in regard to his successor, now that he had made himself ineligible, but about the chance of the discovery of the conditions by the faculty. It happened in this case that the faculty did learn the truth, and debar the man from further competition; but if they had not, the entire undergraduate body would have cheered that man madly at the baseball games the following spring, and would have rejoiced boastfully over the victories made possible by his deceit.

There is at large in the East at the present day a football coach who some years ago was involved in a notorious scandal concerning the eligibility of several members of a team under his charge. Many years ago his mastery of the details of football crookedness earned him the familiar sobriquet of ‘Mucker,’ but last year he acted as coach for one of the best-known colleges in the United States. His tactics are a by-word among men connected with athletic history, yet his retention is tolerated by alumni and undergraduates, — for he is a successful coach.

These last two cases do not involve a few men, they speak for the attitude of the great majority of the alumni of two large universities. In fact the stories told in the foregoing pages are not taken from the athletic history of obscure colleges of uncertain standing. Yale, Columbia, and Cornell figure in them, and I could give others involving Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and universities of equal prominence and solidity. My quarrel, however, is not with any specific colleges, or with specific instances of unsportsmanlike conduct; it is with the lax moral spirit which rules college athletics everywhere; and the stories are only illustrations in point. To prove that these illustrations are indeed typical of conditions in general is difficult, but if you are skeptical,1 let your mind run back over the intercollegiate contests you have witnessed, or watch keenly those which you see next spring and autumn; note the number of fouls called, and the penalties inflicted for offenses such as I have mentioned, — offenses not chargeable to loss of temper but to deliberate breaking of rules, — and see the matter-of-course way in which the cheating is passed over by both players and spectators; recall the instances in which athletes have been declared ineligible after having competed part of a season, and yet have remained in good standing among their college-mates in spite of the fact that they must have falsified to have competed at all, and you will see that the college man does expect these things, and that fair play in college athletics and fair play between gentlemen out of college are two different things.

Count the number of officials required to supervise a football game, and read the special rules designed to let them watch the movements of every man; investigate the complex systems which college athletic associations have instituted for deciding upon the eligibility of competitors who have already given their ‘word of honor’ that their records are clear; read the stories of some of the disputes, — as full of affidavits and canceled checks as a New York State impeachment proceeding,

— and then picture the analogue outside of college: two country clubs engaging in a team match at golf, each competitor required to show a signed statement outlining all of his past athletic history, and reiterating in half a dozen places his good standing in his club, and nevertheless being followed all through the match by a carefully selected official who keeps a cat-like watch on his every move. The absurdity of it will emphasize the true meaning of the everyday occurrences in college athletics.

In short, college men have in regard to their sports a standard of honor — if we may call it such — which permits practices not tolerated in any other walk of life. These men would not cheat in their private games; as a class they are honorable and courageously truthful in all the other relationships of life; but in athletics they tolerate trickery and deceit, and rejoice in the victories gained thereby.

This is not merely a question of the conduct of college sports; it is a question concerning the moral training of future citizens. We are dealing on a small scale with that vicious philosophy of ‘get away with it,’ that has been at the root of dishonest ‘big business.’ Men, not content to make their fortunes in a lawful way, have contrived to circumvent interfering laws, — to violate them without paying the penalty, or so to violate that the penalty evoked will be small compared with the resulting gain. The heads of dishonest corporations and the participants in the profits of public graft are often men with a keen sense of honor in their personal relationships, strong supporters of philanthropies, and sincere worshipers in the churches, but they lack the complete moral sense necessary to enable them to apply one standard of right and wrong to all of their acts. In the same way college students are failing to carry their ideals upon the athletic field, and are allowing themselves to be governed in this one respect by a standard that is essentially immoral.

When we reflect upon the prominence given athletics by undergraduates, and consider the hero-worship accorded the successful athlete both in college and by the general public, the deep import of the matter becomes evident. The undergraduate loves to say that every college community is in a sense a toy world wherein the struggle for fame and influential position is waged in miniature, — the scene of a sham battle fought under the same conditions and with the same weapons as in the world at large, and fought as a preparation for that real battle. If this mock world is to train good citizens it should be so governed that honor and truth are first in popular esteem, and trickery and deceit are outlawed.

How to infuse into college athletics a spirit of fair play and truthfulness comparable to that ruling other undergraduate activities is a difficult problem, and some of the methods suggested are based upon a superficial study of the conditions. The abolition of the professional coach, for instance, is not a solution of the question. We are told that when a man’s livelihood is dependent upon the success of his coaching he will stoop to any tactics to insure victorious teams, and that if athletic coaches were chosen from alumni, moved solely by love for their college and having no financial interests involved in victory, there would be less of the ‘ win-at-any-cost ’ spirit inculcated. It must be remembered, however, that all graduates are the product of the evil system that we are discussing. We have seen that the college man does not regard the tactics we have mentioned as wrong, or that if he does, he tolerates, even supports them. His policy is not likely to change on graduation. The desire to win is as keen among men who have gone through four years of intercollegiate athletics as is the desire to make a living. A careful comparison fails to show that colleges boasting of a ‘graduate coaching system’ are at all superior in athletic ethics to those employing professionals. The practices prevailing in athletics at present may indeed have been first introduced by professional coaches; they flourish now, not because certain men teach them, but because undergraduates and faculties lack the logic to analyze them properly, or the courage to cope with them.

A most certain cure for the evils mentioned, and one often suggested by those college administrators who give thought to this subject, is the total abolition of intercollegiate athletics. Such a policy is yielding to an evil rather than overcoming it. If it be true that a keen desire to win will drive the modern college student into unfairness and cheating, there is some weak spot in his moral fibre, and it would seem to be the business of the college, not to remove the temptation, but to make the man conquer it. Sooner or later every one must choose between losing fairly and winning unfairly. A boy who is made to face this problem in college, and made to solve it rightly, is better equipped to repeat the victory in the larger issues of life. Any one who has spent four years of his life working for the popularity and renown of a successful college athlete, and who has through it all resolutely refused to do anything but the fair and honest thing, is sure to come out of the experience very much a man.

I believe such a solution is possible. The conditions existing in college athletics to-day are the result of gradual and insidious growth. The rottenness prevails largely because the men do not realize that it is rotten. The sanction of general custom is given to practices which, viewed as isolated acts, are manifestly wrong, and the average college man accepts the conditions as he finds them simply because he has never stopped to analyze them. He lies about his eligibility and develops his dishonest tactics, not because he has deliberately chosen between honest}' and dishonesty, but because it is the thing expected of him, — the thing that everybody does as a matter of course.

Faculties should undertake a vigorous campaign of education, designed to show these matters in their true light. Most college men are essentially honest, and the chief need is to make them realize the true significance of what they are doing in athletics under the present system. Arouse the boys to the facts; make them see that cheating in football is the same as cheating at cards or as stealing money; foster a college sentiment that says fairness first and victory second; and attach the same obloquy to lying about eligibility that is attached to any lying. Do this, and you have gone to the root of the evil, and laid the foundation for lasting reform. This basic campaign for moral acumen should, however, be reinforced by two supplementary measures. First, make no rules, either of play or of eligibility, which are not strictly just, and which cannot be entirely enforced; and secondly, subject all dishonesty to severe punishment.

The first measure is in accord with the belief that legislation which the majority of the people does not consider just, or which cannot be enforced, makes for disrespect of the law in general. Many of the rules in regard to eligibility for college athletic teams are neither fair nor enforceable, and should therefore be eliminated if we are to have respect paid to those which are based on justice. The only condition which we have a right to impose in limiting the personnel of a college team is that all members shall be bona fide students in good standing, and not brought to the institution by special inducements offered because of athletic prowess. Because some colleges do violate this essential, a number of rules have been made which aim indirectly to prevent this violation, — rules which in themselves are unjust. The practice which obtains in larger colleges of recruiting athletics from smaller schools is guarded against by the rule forbidding a man who has transferred from one institution to another to compete in athletics until after a year’s residence at the second school. This restriction works a real hardship by prohibiting from engaging in any sports men who are in actual fact members of the student body, but who have, for some good reason not connected with athletics, changed their choice of colleges; and the manifest in justice often makes evasion of the rule seem less reprehensible.

Particularly vicious is the custom of denying the right to engage in college athletics to all men who have previously competed for money, and adherence to it is monumental hypocrisy. There is hardly a poor country boy with fleetness of foot or skill of arm who has not at some time in his life received a cash prize for winning a race at a village picnic, or who has not played on a country-town baseball team for a share of the gate-receipts. Such an indiscretion, committed long before he enters college, debars him forever from athletic competition. Moreover, men who attend college primarily for intellectual purposes often find that playing professional baseball during the summer offers the easiest and most healthful method of solving their financial problems; yet they must not depend upon this one resource if they wish to play with their fellow-students during the academic year. Here again the unfairness of the rule makes evasion of it seem, not a wrong, but the only way to obtain justice.

To my mind there is no place in college athletics for the distinction between amateur and professional; that a man be a bona fide student of the institution he represents is all we have a right to ask. Carried to its logical conclusion, the rule against professionalism is held in some countries to forbid any man who makes a living with his hands from calling himself an amateur athlete. A carpenter, for instance, cannot be an amateur oarsman. If there persists in colleges a vestige of this snobbery, — if we are not yet ready to abolish all distinction between amateur and professional, — we must at least so revise the present rule that it will work less hardship. A few colleges have been courageous enough to do this, and now permit summer baseball, but most institutions still persist in a pretense of strict enforcement of the amateur rule, knowing full well that it makes many students either lie or submit to an injustice. Most of them lie, and feel that the means is condoned if not justified by the end.

The second measure supplementary to education in right athletic ideals, is a firm stand by the faculties in all matters of athletic honor. All opinions to the contrary notwithstanding, undergraduates are influenced in their views of right and wrong by the general attitude of the faculty. Knowing that their teachers are interested in their moral welfare, they conclude, naturally enough, that anything these teachers do not oppose and punish is not so very wrong. This is well illustrated by a consideration of cheating in examinations. In those colleges in which the instructors are lax in the conduct of examinations, seeming to care little whether or not cheating is done, and punishing it when detected only by a reprimand and a mark of failure, there is always a feeling among the students that ‘cribbing’ is a part of the game, and not a matter of honor. On the other hand, when every possible means is taken to prevent cheating, and when it is punished by expulsion, there is usually an undergraduate sentiment which puts the cribber in his proper place. I have seen in one college the whole student attitude upon cheating in examinations changed from indifference to stern disapproval by an improvement in the conduct of examinations on the part of the faculty. No change in the spirit of college athletics can be expected until faculties array themselves firmly on the right side, and refuse to tolerate dishonest practices. A few men expelled for lying about eligibility, and a few teams disbanded because of unfair play, would arouse undergraduates with a wholesome jolt.

A forceful presentation of the facts of the situation with an appeal to the innate sense of honor of the undergraduates; such a revision of the rules as will retain only those based upon essential fairness; and a strict supervision by the faculty, — upon the success of these three measures rests the hope that college athletics may be purged of trickery and the spirit of ‘get away with it.’ It will be a struggle of some duration, for it involves the remoulding of the undergraduate point of view, — something akin to the making of public opinion, and not to be done in a day. I believe it can be done.

In fact there is some basis for asserting that conditions in the larger Eastern institutions have greatly improved during the past few years, — a contention which finds support in the lack of scandal and recrimination connected with the big football games of last autumn as compared with the days of the Cutts and Hinkey disputes. This improvement is not, however, fundamental. Disputes as to eligibility are prevented, not because the spirit of the undergraduates or of the coaches is above reproach, but because faculty committees maintain strict supervision over this matter, and allow no doubtful case to pass without investigation.

More rigid enforcement of the rules has indeed made it harder to ‘get away with it,’ but that there is still a desire to do so whenever possible, is shown by the continuous need for these very faculty committees, and by the everincreasing mass of complex legislation designed to prevent or punish unfair play.

If an honorable spirit of sportsmanship ruled college athletics, why need there be severe penalties threatened for coaching from the side-lines in football, and special precautions exercised by the officials to detect it? Should not merely forbidding it be sufficient? Why should it be necessary in basketball to provide that after four personal fouls a player must be removed from the game? I do not contend that every play, or even that the majority of plays, in intercollegiate games involves trickery, for I know that faculty supervision and vigilant umpiring have great ly reduced the more obvious forms of cheating in the games between the larger eastern institutions. I do contend, however, that even this veneer of fairness is lacking in most colleges; that college athletics are still ruled by the spirit of ‘get away with it’; and that merely preventing the actual success of fraud is but a superficial reform. Men interested in the ethical aspects of college life should not rest until college men meet in sports as do other gentlemen, — relying upon officials merely to aid in the administration of the games, and trusting to their own integrity to prevent intentional unfairness, and to their collective sense of honor to deal summarily with the occasional intruder who may refuse to accept their own high code.

  1. Undergraduate readers of this article are advised, in considering its accuracy, to keep their opponents’ colleges in mind as well as their own. — THE EDITORS.