Intercollegiate Athletics and the War
WHEN America declared war on Germany, nothing, not even our money, disappeared faster than our college athletic teams. This is a war of which students are quick to see the meaning; and while certain mechanics seize the opportunity for an increased pay that shall allow their comforts to remain undiminished and shall strengthen their hold on political power, thousands of young men, with everything that would seem to promise worldly comfort, stake instantly, and as a matter of course, their hopes and their lives at the first call of the ‘voice without reply.’ And this they do for a war in which the part played by romance — as the word is commonly understood — seems unprecedentedly small. An athlete would be expected to accept, out of hand, the sporting challenge of oldfashioned warfare — to lead mad cavalry charges, to match himself like a knight of old with every newcomer as man against man; but outside of certain naval activities and aviation, that supreme test of sportsmanship in life and death, the call of this war is a call, first to the unrelieved monotony of the camp, and next, to the unrelieved horror of the machine-gun and the gas-bomb. These pampered boys, who insisted on special training-tables, who craved special or limited trains, who had to be kept good-natured and happy before big games by automobile rides and musical comedies, and who, if victorious, would have felt slighted without complimentary dinners; boys coached by men who scorned street cars and scarcely used their legs except on the field; boys waited on by a series of stewards called managers, and supported by second teams who required eatable and drinkable rewards of a service which they struggled for the honor of performing — these boys gave proof unmistakable that they were not spoiled, that they still were men, or, rather, were men at last; that they could leave all and follow an ideal which some of us saw in only a few of them, which probably only a few of them saw in themselves. This war has come nearer justifying our methods in intercollegiate athletics than we had thought possible.
Nevertheless, our methods had tremendous faults of which we were aware, — some of us dimly, some of us plainly, — and of which we seemed unable to rid them. Reforming athletics is about as hard as reforming society. A convulsion may reform either; and a convulsion has come. What seemed to coaches and players the biggest thing in life — so vital that every smallest part of it was of almost sacred import
— is, for the time being, scarcely important enough for its own health. Coaches once moved heaven and earth to prove eligible a man whom nothing but the annihilation of four or five other candidates for the same position would tempt them to use in a big game. Now, — with every need of every man who can play at all, — eligibility has taken a back seat, where it belongs. Now, such undergraduates and coaches as remain may be conceived of as studying economy. Once, nobody was surprised if a manager contended that it was squabs and victory or chickens and crushing defeat. Now, a team is lucky if it gets the necessities of life, lucky in being a team at all, and is grateful for mere existence.
Fevers used to be treated by bleeding; if the patient survived, he had to be built up. Our patient is so reduced that he needs building up; it is for us, and for those whom we represent, to prescribe the nature and the amount of his nourishment. Some years ago, just as I was leaving Cambridge to discuss at New Haven the dates for certain games, a misguided enthusiast chased me into the street to say, ‘We’ve licked ’em; and you can get any date you want.’ Not we, but events, have ’licked’ intercollegiate athletics. We,
— that is to say, our colleges, — acting together, may do with them almost as we please.
‘Acting together’ I have said, not in every detail, but in spirit. If we fail to learn from the war, if the great moments of the great world paralyze us, and we do nothing with the opportunities, infinitely smaller yet great in their kind, of the college athletic world, we shall join the crowded ranks of those who, whether too inert to act or too blind to see, have ’lost their chance.’
What is our chance ? Those of us — and this should mean all of us — who have not lost the interests of youth love sport for sport’s sake, and victory as the crown of sport; we love also that personified ideal which is intensely real, the college which, either by tradition or by accident, has become our Alma Mater; and we love to see our Alma Mater upheld, not merely as an institution of learning where mature scholars may prosecute research, but as a school where boys become men through all things that fitly minister to their physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life.
Among these things is manly sport, which at college finds its supreme expression in upholding the supremacy of the Alma Mater. In the right kind of game between Yale and Harvard, for example, every player wears his college colors much as a knight in tourney wore the colors of his lady. This high and simple truth has been put out of sight, — and almost out of life, — by the parasites that have overgrown it. ‘Our chance’ is to keep it clear in the eyes and strong in the hearts of our students, to associate athletics with honor in the best sense of the word, with honor and not with notoriety. Against us are the quick transiency of college generations, the lopsidedness of a boy’s growth to manhood, the more vulgar of human ambitions, the desire of the public for excitement, and what Matthew Arnold would call the ‘ignobleness’ of the American newspaper. All these hostile forces have united to some extent in our present coaching system, even when that system is intelligent, disciplinary, and in divers ways morally strong.
The important attacks on intercollegiate sport have come from earnest men who fail to see its meaning: rightly disgusted with its commercial aspects, feeling little sympathy with athletics except for health, they are naturally irritated by what seems to them a colossal substitution of sham for reality, prostituting what should be a means to health by making it an end in itself, and an end that defeats the end to which it should be a means, by endangering rather than insuring the health for which alone it exists. Meanwhile, they allege, it robs study, scamps the performance of daily duty, magnifies physical prowess, nurses luxury, and is at best only an intermittent check on vice, which between periods of training rides triumphant. The very thought of thousands who squander money for tickets to games, the very sight of thousands who find games of absorbing interest in a world ‘so full of a number of things,’ bears annoying witness to the mad folly of the American public and to the pusillanimous irresponsibility of American institutions of learning that cater to this folly. Such is the feeling of those to whom the inner light of intercollegiate athletics burns dim at best, and not at all when obscured by outward circumstances. Moreover, even if these persons are, as I believe them, in great part wrong, they speak some patent truths that every responsible lover of his college cannot but deplore.
Met one by one, the obstacles that I have named seem surmountable. Though by the time one set of students is half educated, it gives place to another, this is no more the law of the athletic field than of the classroom. In the classroom also we must adapt ourselves to the lopsidedness of a boy’s development. There too we see, if we have eyes, the meaner and the more vulgar ambitions in their aggressive campaign for mastery. The only athletic difficulties not familiar to college teachers are what may be called the public difficulties, the difficulties that arise from the exploiting of skill and personal qualities until football stars have as little privacy as stars of musical comedy or the film, with whom publicity means money and position. Is it strange that the possibilities of publicity in money and position should penetrate the minds of football stars?
The chief evils of athletic publicity are, as everybody knows, extravagant expenditures, dishonest proselyting, the upsetting of relative values, and the kind of lionizing that turns the heads of boys, not to speak of those girls with whom football heroes are socially superior matinee idols. Some honorable means of abolishing or greatly decreasing these evils must be found if intercollegiate athletics are to be a thoroughly wholesome part of our academic life.
A pretty good case may be argued for publicity. In place of brawls between town and gown, we now have college feeling spread for miles about. Boys get interested in the college whose teams they see, and aspire to attend it. College games for college students only would be snobbish. College games are good recreation for any spectator; and spectators are harmless and lucrative. Privacy nobody expects in these days. Any girl who announces her engagement sees her photograph in the public prints; any society girl who sells cake at a fair for charity or bathes at Palm Beach, any young drummer who manages the floor at a lodge dance, may read all about it (with illustrations). Why should college athletes, who do skilfully what people love to see, be treated with a delicate consideration which few of them or of their friends would appreciate?
Moreover, if the corporation of a university accepts a gift for a stadium that costs three times the amount of the gift, and expects the athletic association to pay two or three hundred thousand dollars for the completion of the sum, and interest on every dollar of the principal until it can pay the dollar, the athletic association is obliged to get money. It must get money also for keeping in condition fields, buildings, and boats, and for supporting crews that cost much and bring in nothing. Given a building like the Yale Bowl, — or even like the Harvard Stadium, — with nothing to take care of it, the athletic association cannot rise wholly superior to commercial standards. You may beg, you may tax the students, and blackmail the faculty, in support of your team; or you may charge for admission and sell a great many tickets.
The responsibilities of structures designed for from five to fifteen times as many spectators as there are men in the university, are varied and great. You cannot live a cottage life in a hotel. Once in pursuit of money, you are tempted by all the devices of business. It pays to advertise; it pays to pay enough for securing coaches who will turn out teams that people will pay to see. Then, as militarism makes nations outbid one another in armament, football makes colleges outbid one another in coaching, until the various positions on the gridiron are parceled out among specialists in football, much as the various organs of the body are parceled out among specialists in medicine.
Professor Corwin reminds us that it has cost two or three thousand dollars a boy to put an eleven on the field for a Yale-Harvard game. Even so, if seventy-five thousand tickets are sold at two dollars each, the game is good business; and at a Yale-Harvard game, the spectator sees more for two dollars than he usually sees at the theatre. But whoever is in New Haven on the eve of the game and attempts roughly to calculate the total amount of money spent in getting to the game and living near it, is appalled, if not temporarily sickened. I name New Haven because the Bowl is so big; obviously the responsibility is no more Yale’s than Harvard’s. All the evils of publicity feed one another. The crowd needs the Bowl, and the Bowl needs the crowd. Notoriety brings good gate-receipts, and gate-receipts bring notoriety. Notoriety also begets proselyting, open or disguised. Reputable alumni of colleges often half deceive themselves when, by free tuition and pleasant perquisites, they persuade a schoolboy to honor their Alma Mater among all the venerable suitors for his athletic hand; nor is it easy for a poor and ambitious boy to put Satan behind him, when Satan assumes the guise of a reputable alumnus paying tribute of flattery and of money to his skill.
Finally, some students get better discipline and more education from athletics than from any other academic experience, thus furnishing a new argument for our methods in football, baseball, and rowing. On this singular reversal of propriety, the coach’s natural comment is, ‘Brace up the Faculty, or I shall continue to do what it can’t. ’ No doubt the Faculty needs bracing; but, as the late Professor Royce remarked, ‘When the band is playing for a procession to the last open practice, it is difficult to interest Freshmen in the syllogism.’ The fault is not wholly the Faculty’s; still less is it the boys . All of us — Faculty, alumni, and American public — had nourished a young giant until he made a grown giant’s demands. Now he has suddenly shrunk; and nobody believes in overfeeding him again. Not merely the Faculty, but the great body of serious undergraduates, — even the athletes themselves, with their new light on relative values, — do not hesitate to say that things should never again be as they have been.
Yet, if this war is ever over and reasonable peace is ours, relative values may soon be upset again. One false start in one large college may knock over our new and unsteady structure like a house of cards. No captain with money in the treasury likes to accept the danger of defeat; expert help is scarce and, according to the law of demand and supply, no coach of the first rank is paid too much. ‘It is a crucial season. Can’t we have X. Y. for just this year?’ Here begins anew the coaching system. Or, ' The men cannot find room together at the big dining-halls; and some of them are irregular in their meals. Can’t we have an eating-place where we can all meet?’ Here revives the training-table.
It is easy to reduce income and thus to find a ready reply to such petitions. Whether we get an income from admission tickets or from solicited subscriptions, we can readily cut it down; but whether or not we cut down our income, we can and should cut down our expenses. We at Harvard, who have probably been among the worst offenders, have in late years checked the lavish and foolish multiplication of gift sweaters at the close of the season, and have been less unthrifty in certain other matters. Yet in preparing teams and crews we have spent money like water.
In reconstruction, the first obvious reform is the abolition of the trainingtable. In some colleges it was abolished years ago, with no obvious loss of success and with much saving of money. It used to be maintained, first as a means of furnishing suitable diet to men in training, next, as a stimulant to esprit de corps. Men play concertedly, it was argued, if they eat concertedly, if at table they become intimate with each other’s ways of talking and thinking. The interpsychological communion thus established seems too carnal to amount to much. It is probably worth something; yet not thinking of the great ordeal every minute, not taking your shop to all your meals, is also worth something; and as for food, the evidence, I understand, is in favor of a more natural diet, a diet more like other men’s than that of the old training-table.
I take the training-table as an example merely. The primary need of reform is in the cost and the character of coaching. Lest you think me personal, I wish to make clear that, so far as an inexpert lover of the game may judge, Harvard has had in Mr. Haughton a coach second to nobody in skill, wise in not exacting so much work of the players as to kill all their pleasure in the game, sound in teaching hard fierce play but never foul play, and generally wholesome in his discipline. ‘Is he not a little sulphurous in his talk to you now and then?’ said a professor to a hard-working member of the squad. And the boy’s answer would have warmed any coach’s heart: with all the ardor of hero-worship he exclaimed, ‘Never, unless it is good for your character!’ It is not of Mr. Haughton that I speak; it is of the system which he ably, and in no way meanly, represents, and for which neither he nor any other coach is responsible.
After the manner of the proposed League to Enforce Peace, rival colleges must agree to limit the cost of coaching, must stick to the agreement, and must not annually suspect their rivals of not sticking to it. Reduction in cost would probably mean reduction to one coach for each of the major sports, perhaps to one coach for baseball and football. Some persons favor strictly amateur coaching. Theoretically we all favor it, just as, theoretically, we all favor peace; practically, you get better results with a coach who, being paid for certain work, performs it, and, being responsible to certain persons, is ultimately controlled by them. Few suitable amateurs have both the means and the time. There is no objection to a professional as such, if he is a clean professional and knows his profession; there are many objections to transient amateurs, who, doing the college a favor, feel responsible to nobody; who may be tempted under ’expenses paid’ to all kinds of graft; who may entertain their friends, mentionable and unmentionable, at hotels, and send unanalyzable bills to the athletic association. Year in and year out, the amateur who has his expenses paid is more demoralizing than the professional responsible to his employers and to his job. The right kind of amateur with leisure is the best coach of all, and may from time to time be found in any one sport at any one college; but the right kind of amateur — the right kind of anything — is rarely a man of leisure; and careful direction of athletic sport takes time.
It is a sort of purple dream with some enthusiasts that a director of athletics belongs in the Faculty. I am one of these purple dreamers. In the West we should not be dreamers at all; for the dream has become a reality. So it has here and there in the East; but elsewhere in the East the suggestion of it is derided. No first-rate man, we are told, would go into such a business as coaching for an indefinite period; nobody in the Faculty would regard a coach as belonging there. Getting used to the idea may take time; but there are men, potential coaches, who might expedite the process; and there are other men, potential Faculties, to whom the doctrine that mind and body should be trained together, each helping the other, is neither startling nor novel. These men understand that no minister and no dean begins to have the opportunity of the coach in the higher education for life, if not for learning; and they can at least conceive of an educated man, preferably with medical training, whose interest in youth and in those things to which spirited youth responds most eagerly will never die till he himself shall die; of a man who sees in the position of athletic director an opportunity, constant and far-reaching, a career of absorbing responsibility and fascinating hard work.
Such a conceivable man in such a conceivable Faculty will be a professional in the sense in which other professors are professional. He will be an educated man, working for money and for something better than money, at an institution of enlightened learning. He will not pit athletics against study or students against Faculty. For some detailed work he will hire subordinates, responsible to him and through him to the Faculty. If he is regarded as socially inferior, he will bide his time until all sensible persons see that he is not, and that there is no sufficient reason why he should be.
This idea, as I have said, is not original or even new; it is newer in the East than in the West. Eventually something like it will come to stay. A position of incomparable influence, a position that it is a high honor to fill, will not remain inferior in everything but salary. It waits only for the right man and for that recognition from the higher powers which is the first step toward getting him.
Again, this war should teach us to stop petty bickerings and to treat each other as honest gentlemen. Colleges whose boys fight side by side for the mightiest cause that ever shook the world, can we live again in constant fear that some one will take advantage of us in a game unless we take advantage of him first? When we play again, can we afford to begin except as friend and friend, as host and guest?
As to students — let us not forget that, after two or three years of a certain policy, they will gravely tell their elders that ‘it has always been so.’ Alumni are harder to convince, some even objecting to pleasant social relations between rival teams before a game as what never would have been tolerated in their day, in the golden era of bad feeling. Newspapers may be incorrigible; but reporters are human, and nearly always respond to frankness and courtesy. College teams will not play so finished a game as they played once; admission fees may be reduced for the public, possibly abolished for the students; but, with the world at peace, the time will never come when a game between such rivals as Yale and Princeton, or Yale and Harvard, or Princeton and Harvard, will not warm the blood of any graduate who has not quite forgotten what it was to be young.
Intercollegiate athletics are brought face to face with the problem that confronts America, and by the same tremendous force, the war for the mastery or the liberation of the world. Like America, they will stand or fall according as they choose between luxury and simplicity, trickery and integrity, the senses and the spirit.