What Are College Games For?

"Surely we are not in the business of making profits from the games of our students. Nor are we willing that they should be in that business either. But in some way or other we have gotten into that business, have built our fields and used them for extracting all the money which the traffic will bear" 

There is one obvious and outstanding fact about the younger generation, viz., that the older generation made it. The marks of its makers are upon it. These young people who torment us, who baffle us, who seem so different from ourselves these are our children. Whatever they are they owe to us. We gave them birth; we gave them training; we gave them the social order which shapes and fashions them. If they have virtues, the cause is in us; if they have vices, it is we who brought them into being. In every proper causal sense they are ours. If then we wish to understand our children we must examine ourselves. If we would prescribe for their diseases or cultivate their virtues, we must find the sources of these in ourselves and in our world. Just as the fathers, whom we approve, made us, so we made these who follow us, whom we often condemn. But the approval on the one hand and the disapproval on the other seem to clash when they meet together in us who stand between. Why so ill an effect from so good a cause?

The principle just stated holds good, I think, for many present situations. But more specifically, for our immediate purpose, it throws light upon what is known as 'The Athletic Situation in the Colleges.'

It may be worth while to discuss that situation in the light which the principle will give.

A few days ago, the postman brought us a letter of a type which is fairly familiar. It reads as follows:—

Sept. 5, 19

DEAR SIR: I would like to enter Amhurst College, on behalf of my athletic ability. I have played football for the past five years. I played three years for — High School, selected in — all scholastic team in 1919. I have been a scrubb at — College for the past two years. One varsity season under — and the other in my freshman year. My weight at present is 165 lbs. and I play the position of an end. I also participate in baseball.

My past record at — is highly graded due to my boxing ability. I boxed the past two seasons for — Varsity. I realize the fact that your College does not have this sport, but I do promise to make good on my football ability. I would like to hear from you at your earliest convenience, anytime before your registering days or the first day of school.

I would gladly except your must legitimate offer towards a scholarship in helping me get an education.

Very truly yours

— —

Now in the spirit of our principle we are bound to ask, 'What have we done to deserve this?' Here is a young man rejoicing in the fruits of two years of teaching in a well-known American college. Presumably he has been under the instruction of school and college for fourteen or fifteen years. Presumably his achievements have been accepted as sufficient basis for promotion by school and college throughout that period. And yet he is apparently untouched by what a school or college ought to give. And this appears at two points. First, he cannot write an English sentence. If his skill in athletics were equal to his skill in English composition, what chance would he have of 'making the team'? With such equipment a football coach would look upon him as kindly as upon a man with wooden legs or bereft of both his arms. Upon the field men must have speed and strength and wits; and they must show that everything they have is forced up to its highest point by constant, faithful practice. But in the world of books, what are the standards? This case suggests that in the training of the mind standards are very low compared with those which dominate the training of the body. If so, who is at fault; what can be done to clear away the fault?

And second, the writer of this letter offers services for sale. 'What will you pay,' he asks, 'if I will come and play upon your teams?' There is a blunder in his mind when he asks such a question: what is it? No one can blame him for offering services for sale. We all do that who earn our livings. The blunder lies in thinking that any proper college would buy such services. He thinks of us as hiring teams, as paying men to 'represent' the college in its games. Who taught him things like that? Where did he get his notion of what a college is, and what a game, and what a football fight between two groups of undergraduates? Someone has led him astray, has robbed him of the meaning of college sport. Who is the guilty person? We need to fix the guilt because such robbery, such spoiling of our college games must stop. And we can stop them only by finding out just what they are and how they came about. Somewhere in what we are, in what we have done or left undone, in what we think and feel and teach, the cause of our vexation will be found. And we must search until we find it. Then having found it we must act accordingly.


I have said that the truth about our college games needs to be discovered and stated. May I add that it should be stated very carefully? The truth is, I think, that our athletic situation is fundamentally dishonest. But 'dishonest' is a dangerous term. It needs to be defined.

This charge of 'dishonesty' is very commonly made just now, especially by younger people, against our established institutions. And, in large measure, I think, the so-called revolt of youth is based upon this charge. Older people seem to say one thing when they mean another, to give one reason for an action when they are really moved by another. How much of truth is there in the charge? Is the management of the world just now unusually dishonest? Or is the resentment against dishonesty unusually keen? Both factors, I think, enter into the situation.

Men have always been moved by more than one motive at a time And they have always been tempted to show one motive to one person and a second motive to another in order to secure the favor of each for a common cause. When men say that trade follows the flag, they hope to link together, sometimes in strange conjunctions, both patriots and moneymakers. When they add that trade follows the missionary, they are seeking to add religious people to the combination, or vice versa. And the creation of just such connections is sometimes called administration. Are we unusually clever in such duplicity or multiplicity just now? Many younger people think we are—and they hate it. My own observation is that we are at present unusually mixed up by a complicated world. We have more motives to correlate, more interests to manage than we are ready for. And I doubt very much whether the younger generation in the same situation would have done any better with it than we have done. But, however that may be, the two elements in the situation seem to me to stand out with striking clearness. First, we have had in our world—and still have—perplexities and hesitations and concealments and devices. And second, out of these has come a hatred of them, a demand for straightforwardness in motive and action.

If that demand can be met without breaking the social machinery, the younger people will have a better world in which to live than had their elders. If they can get it they are welcome to it even though they state their discovery of it in terms of a condemnation of those who have made their achievement necessary but who also have made it possible. If they succeed they will record us as 'dishonest.' Perhaps a more sympathetic judgment would call us 'complicated.'


Now this general social situation is strikingly illustrated in the field of college games. College sport has been mixed up with other college interests, has been administered into connection with other college enterprises, has been used for other purposes. What it needs is just to be freed from this mixture. It must be made and kept pure sport, played for its own sake, and for nothing else.

The mixture of which I speak appears in the letter which is our text. The writer hopes for a chance to play. But he also hopes for payment in return for good playing. He thinks that, for some ulterior reason, we of the college want and need good playing, and are therefore willing to pay for it. Are we? If so, why?

I should like to try to separate the original and the secondary motives which together make our complicated situation.

There are two primary motives from which college games spring, out of which the essential spirit of the games is made. The first is a desire of the players and of the undergraduate community which they represent; it is the desire for fun, for the sheer joy of competition with another college and, its team. Taken all in all, there is no 'outside' interest of the undergraduate years which is so compelling or, within proper limits, so worth while as this.

The second motive is the desire of players and communities for victory in the games. This too is essential. There can be no game without it. If one does not wish and strive for victory, then one does not play at all. To play is to play to win.

These two motives are, I think, the stuff of which college sport is made. They are not its only values, but they are, I think, its dominating intentions. Do they give us an explanation of our letter? Evidently not. Any undergraduate knows that to pay a man to play on his team is not good sport, to hire a man to be a member of the college in order that he may 'represent' it, is a contradiction in terms. I do not mean to suggest that undergraduates are immune to self-contradiction. But I do think that, if undergraduates were free from our complications, they would escape this sort of contradiction. The young American is a good sport if he gets a fair chance at being one. But the sting of this letter lies in the fact that it is addressed to the college authorities, that more specifically it asks for a scholarship from the college funds as payment for athletic service. Evidently it presumes that president and faculty are interested in winning teams. Are they? And if so, why? What are their motives in relation to college sport?

My own experience in such matters has been, I think, a very fortunate one. And yet experience as well as observation compels me to give to this question an answer which one would rather not give. 'We' are interested in winning teams, not only because we like to win, but also because life is easier for us, administration is more smooth, when teams are winning than when they lose. I have heard it said that the turn of a game would have much to do with the success of a drive for endowment. I have seen lists of figures eagerly compiled and scanned to show that under one administration the percentage of victories was quite as great as under another. What are the secondary motives at work here? Why does administration care for victories more than for defeats?

The answer is that victories are supposed to win for the college the favor of men who without them would be indifferent or antagonistic. To put it quite bluntly, the college needs the favor and support of men who are not sufficiently interested in its essential values to care for it because of these. It therefore makes appeal to them on other grounds. It hopes that in the fact that one football team has beaten another they will find reason for endowing the scholarship and teaching with which the first team is 'connected.' It offers an insult to their intelligence as an appeal to their favor.

There are two groups of men to whom this appeal is especially made, the 'public' and the 'athletic alumni.' In the first case, it is hoped that the news of the winning of games, if properly spread abroad, will make a good impression upon people who do not know the college in other ways. In this sense, winning teams are 'good advertising.' It is believed that, wherever the news of victory goes, 'boys' will be attracted to the college, their friends will be impressed by its strength, and so the numbers and the prestige of the institution will be increased. In the period of building-up since the early nineties, this notion has been widespread and sometimes very powerful.

The appeal to the 'athletic alumni' is very similar. These men are the graduates and non-graduates of the college who value athletic victories very highly. In some few exceedingly crude cases, they seem to care for victories and for nothing else. For these men a college is an athletic club with certain other very irritating appendages. But the greater number of the group are not so dull as this. They commonly believe first, that victories give 'good advertising,' and second, that victories indicate better than anything else the quality of the undergraduate life, and even of the college instruction and administration. For lack of other standards, they judge the college by this, with which they are familiar.

Now the essential feature of both these appeals is that the college is attempting by indirection to win the favor of men for one cause by meeting their interest in another. And this is simply one phase of the fact that those who are carrying on educational work in America must or do depend for support upon men who, in large measure, do not understand or do not care what education really is. In dealing with such men we use our games as a way of using them. It is a natural thing to do. But is it either wise or fair? My own conviction is that the procedure in all its forms is radically bad and unwise, that it defeats its own ends while seeming to gain them. In the remainder of this paper I should like to try to point out the harm which this administrative complication of motives has done to education and to the games. That it is harmful to both seems to me beyond question.


If anyone doubts that our double-dealing is harmful to education, I would refer him to the letter with which this discussion began. The case is extreme but it is representative. Do we suppose that we can surround our students with a persistent and powerful misrepresentation of what they are doing in college and yet expect them to understand their task and to do it well? If we tell them that a college with good teams is a good college, what do we expect them to choose as their own college purposes? The business of 'advertising' a college needs very careful scrutiny. I have yet to see any college undertake to 'attract' boys by appeal to the lesser values of the college life without at the same time making it probable that the boys had better go elsewhere if they wish to get an education. We are under obligation to advertise our colleges in the sense of explaining what they are, what they have to give. But we are under even greater obligation to stop misrepresenting the college and its work in order to make it attractive to those who are not interested in it. At its best, this procedure is an attempt to catch young men unawares, to give them an education while they are thinking of something else. At its worst, it is crude and vulgar deception. But in either case it is essentially hostile to the work and the spirit of a place where learning is, where truth and knowledge are to be sought and found.

With respect to the alumni who have judged the college by its athletic victories we have, I think, genuine ground for encouragement. I say this not for administrative reasons, but because it seems to me true. Any alumnus who stops to think knows that a good team does not prove a good college. When all is said and done, it is clear that the surest and best way to get a good team is to buy it, to hire the players and to hire good coaches to train them. This has been shown very clearly in many striking cases. And in less striking cases it is equally true according to the measure of the dishonesty and lack of sportsmanship. In the face of facts like these, no one can continue to think that a college may be judged by its teams. And in general I believe that the graduates of our colleges are learning better standards, are judging not so much by petty and lesser values as by the essential things. It is at least to be sincerely hoped that this is true. Surely every president and every faculty should be busy in trying to make it true. We need from our friends, support and favor, but, far more than these, we need from our own graduates genuine and sympathetic understanding of what we are trying to do. Whatever hinders that, harms our work. Whatever increases it, makes good education more nearly possible. That athletic misrepresentation has done grievous harm to the American college, its students, its teachers, its graduates, its outside friends, no one can doubt. That it must be stopped is equally certain.


But what harm has been done to the games themselves by the use of them for other purposes? What has administration double-mindedness done to sport and to sportsmanship? It has not wholly destroyed them. Young men in college are still young and still men; and hence games are still games. But it has allowed the games to be shockingly changed for the worse.

When, however, one examines the damage, it appears to be due not so much to positive offenses by presidents and faculties as to the failure of these guardians of the college to take opportunities, to meet obligations with clean and decisive action. The task of understanding and placing games in the general scheme of college life is not an easy one. We have many excuses for failure to accomplish it; and yet the fact remains that we have failed, that the collegiate administration of games is on the whole a rather pitiful failure.

The difficulty of the task has arisen chiefly from the coming-in of an external factor. We first thought of games as the play of students, as competition between colleges. But during the last thirty or forty years these contests have taken on very great interest for people outside the colleges. The general public, collegiate and non-collegiate, is so eager to see our contests that it is willing to pay well for the privilege. And so it has come about that more and more we have provided on our fields places for lookers-on; until now the largest 'crowds' are mounting to fifties or sixties of thousands, and the gate receipts of a team for a season may be counted by the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here then are the elements of a rather difficult situation. Our primary purpose is that our students play games with the men of other colleges. But other people wish to see the play and are willing to pay for the privilege. What shall we do? Shall we refuse to admit outsiders? Shall we admit them without payment? If we take payment, on what scale shall it be and what use shall be made of the money taken? Now to each of these questions our practice has given the easiest answer, whether right or wrong. If people wish to see, then of course they must be admitted. If people offer money, of course we will take it—take as much as they are willing to pay. If the money is taken in as profit from athletic games, then of course the proper use of it is for athletic purposes. These are the easy natural answers; but within them lies the cause of our disaster.

The first answer is, I think, valid. It would not be wise or friendly for us to exclude the public from our contests. From our own immediate standpoint such exclusion is desirable. If the games were not public spectacles we could have better sport, more fun, better sportsmanship than is possible with our present publicity. And yet it would be socially wrong for us to seek such seclusion. The college is, in all essential features, a public institution. Here is a 'complication' from which we cannot generously or honorably escape. The public must come if they wish and we must make them welcome; and then make the best of our situation.

The second answer is not so clearly or so completely true. I think we have a right and even an obligation to make a charge for admission to the games. It would hardly seem proper to use the funds of the college to pay for the providing of accommodations for spectators. One cannot very well use scholarship or library funds for the building of 'Bowls' and 'Coliseums.' But why should the charge be anything more than that of the actual additional cost of providing space and seats for those who ask us to provide them? I can see no justification for anything more. Surely we are not in the business of making profits from the games of our students. Nor are we willing that they should be in that business either. But in some way or other we have gotten into that business, have built our fields and used them for extracting all the money which the traffic will bear. Here is a commercialism which must be stopped. Young men, as well as old, must see that it is not, always necessary to take money, when it is offered. Taking money usually implies a bargain. And in this case, the spirit of sportsmanship stands in the way. We are playing, not for money, but for fun.

But it is the third answer which is most clearly and wickedly wrong. If we assume that gate receipts are to be charged and thereby large sums of money are to be made available, who shall take them? The answer given is, that if money is made by games, it should be used for games; if it is made by teams, it should be used for teams. Why? What is the connection?

As matter of fact, it is the exact opposite which is true. There can be no proper connection here. Everyone knows that in such sport as ours, the money earned should not be given to the individual players. But it is equally true that it should not be used for the teams. If this is done, then the winning of games and the making of money are linked together in ways which are inevitably destructive of the whole scheme of college play. If the team wins, it makes more money; if it has more money, it is more sure of winning.

And so the wheel goes spinning round and the games which we began to play for fun become great financial struggles between managers and supervisors and coaches, and scouts and other outsiders, while the players are more and more the puppets used by the machine in fashioning its successes.

Here is, I am sure, the radical blunder which has been made by our double-minded administration. We have put together play and money making when every interest of play demanded that they be separated. When it appeared, thirty years ago, that our games were arousing public interest and could therefore be made sources of revenue, what did we say? More or less clearly two statements were made. First, this public interest, though bad for sport, is good for other reasons, and must be cultivated. And second, the amounts of money involved are too large to be managed by undergraduates; we must establish Boards of Control to see that proper management is given. And so we took from undergraduates the management of their own games—much to their delight as they saw our more 'efficient' administration. In their place we have established great systems of administration which have built Stadiums, Bowls, Coliseums, have increased gate receipts, have aroused public interest, have 'developed' teams, until the whole system has become an absurd travesty of the motive from which it sprang, the impulse of play which it was intended to serve.

Nothing seems to me clearer than that it is essential for us to cut the connection between players and teams on the one side and gate receipts and expenditures on the other. If undergraduates wish to have games, they should furnish the players from their own ranks, should arrange their own schedules, pay their own expenses, carry on their own play. If on the other hand, people wish to come to the college grounds to see the play, the college may charge for this such payment as it thinks best. My own opinion is that it should charge the expense of the field and nothing more.

But whether the income be large or small, it should be taken and used by the college and not by the team or its management. The interests of the sport demand that the money be kept apart from it.

When one suggests that such a change as this be made, the officers of the 'system' reply that under existing circumstances a change is impossible. But the officers of a system usually say that. There is no inherent difficulty in making such a change. The interests which the system is intended to serve demand that it be made.


The absurdity of our present administration of games reaches its climax in the institution of the coach, the armies of coaches. These are men who are brought in to develop the playing skill of the team to the highest possible pitch. They are given full and complete charge of the players and the play; far more than anyone else they are held responsible for victories or defeats. In return for this they are paid large, exceedingly large salaries, as judged by the standards of the college community. Now the growth of this institution is of course directly traceable to the administration of the gate receipts. If large sums of money are available, then many and good coaches can be secured by paying for them. If good coaching is provided, the level of play is raised, more victories are won, and the gate receipts are still further increased. The making of the money enters directly and essentially into the winning of the games. The sport is commercialized at its very centre. It is not too strong a statement to say that undergraduate responsibility for the winning or 1osing of games has very largely disappeared.

Now here again it seems to me imperative that we go back to first principles and escape from our double-mindedness. There is no real fun, no genuine sport in hiring a man to furnish the wits, the skill, the discipline, the control by which you attempt to win a game. If undergraduates are to have real games, they must do their own coaching, take charge of their own teams, develop their own strategy, work out their own discipline; the team must be theirs, and they must win or lose on their own efforts. I know nothing more depressing than the conversation in a college community at the end of a season, when, having won or lost our games, we speculate what the result would have been, had we hired these men rather than those to take charge of the chances of victory. I am not here attacking the character or personal quality of coaches. They range in this respect from crude and vulgar outsiders to men whose friendship is gladly welcomed in any academic community. What I am saying is that with the coming-in of coaching, real undergraduate competition has gone out. Students should play their own games. To see them turning to a coach who will tell them whether to hit or to wait, whether to circle the end or to plunge at the tackle—to see the giving-up of the very fun of the game itself, that is a sight to make one's heart weep. It is time that we should ask, 'How have we come to this?'

To the suggestion that coaches be abolished, objection has been made that 'since in our intellectual work we furnish the best teaching,' in the field of sports 'we should give the very best teaching that there is.' The objection rests, I think, on two misapprehensions. It fails to recognize the destruction of undergraduate responsibility which coaching has brought about. And, perhaps for this very reason, it hopelessly confuses 'coaching' and 'teaching.' We have departments of physical training which are teaching in the field of athletics. And it is our hope that through them every student in the college may be given some appreciation of the joys and advantages of athletic games. But the difference between 'teaching' and 'coaching' is one which no genuine teacher will allow to be obscured. The teacher develops the independence of his pupil; the coach takes away that independence. The teacher is preparing the pupil in general by trying to give him understanding of the field in which his activities may lie. The coach is preparing him for specific tests, specific occasions, is getting him ready for a particular contest which is coming and coming soon. For the winning of that contest the coach takes responsibility, whether it be an entrance examination or a game of football. The coach studies the actual situation, finds out just what the factors are, determines what shall be done with respect to each, issues his orders as to what shall be done and what not done. It is the business of a teacher to develop a pupil into power and intelligence; it is the business of a coach to win a contest. I know few things more amusing than a college debate in which a 'coach' has told his automata what to say. But quite as tragic is the spectacle of a group of boys using their arms and backs and legs at the command of another man's wits, and supposing at the same time that they are playing a game.

As to the prospect of improvement here, there is some reason for encouragement. The suggestion that no one be allowed to coach unless he be a member of the faculty is being very favorably considered. It is perhaps somewhat invidious to suggest that the first step toward nonexistence is membership in a faculty. But at least the suggestion does mean that we are considering the problem. My own impression is that the days of double-mindedness are going by.


I have dealt in this paper with the effects of administration upon college games. And one does this because, after all, the attitudes and actions of faculties and presidents are the most important factors in any matter of college activity whatever it may be. That there are other sources of difficulty need hardly be said. Especially is it true that small groups of undergraduates and, more often, of graduates, with no proper sense of what a game is, persist in hiring men to play upon our college teams. As to such men one can only say that, if a cad comes into your company, you cannot very well escape the effects of his caddishness; but you can wish that you were free from his company.


If it were not for repeated experiences to the contrary, it would hardly seem necessary to say that this paper is not intended as an attack upon college games. I do not think that college students play too many intercollegiate games. I do not think that they have too much interest in athletic sports. I should like to see every student in a college playing some game and learning to play it well. And here it should in fairness be said that in some cases the income from intercollegiate games has been used wisely for the providing of fields and equipment for just such general enjoyment of athletic play. But, quite apart from this, I believe in the intercollegiate games of students both because of what they are and because of what they do for the communities which take part in them. Athletic sport is a fine and splendid thing in the life of any young man, of any community of young men. This paper is written in protest against the spoiling of that sport by using it for other purposes.

I believe in college education but I do not believe in furthering it by the abuse of the play of students. My observation is that when that attempt is made we spoil not only the play but also the education.