“Big-Time Football and Big-Time Scandals”: What History Can Tell Us About the Future of College Sports and the NCAA

July 23, 2012 | Blog

This is a GUEST POST by Nick Strohl, a doctoral student in History and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had the pleasure of engaging Nick in my higher education policy class last semester, where he was a complete star. His areas of study include the history of education, American intellectual and cultural history, and higher education. His current research focus is the history of American higher education during the interwar years.

Much of this post centers on discussion of these two recent books:
If you look closely at images of the recently-removed Joe Paterno statue outside of Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus, you can make out the familiar Nike Swoosh on the uniforms of the four anonymous players who follow their iconic coach. Although Nike, led by one of Paterno’s most ardent supporters over the years, Phil Knight, has removed the Paterno name from the childcare center at its company headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, the corporate logo enshrined as part of this statue would be forever tied to the fate of that monument. While the Paterno statue was not intended to memorialize commercialism in college sports, it might as well have, for the lucrative enterprise that is big-time college football is what gave Paterno the power and prestige that we now know he—and his former assistant Jerry Sandusky—abused.

However, as two recent books on the history of college football make clear, the commercialism of college sports—not to mention the rise of the entrepreneurial, professional coach—long predates the influence of companies like Nike or even the influence of wealthy alumni boosters who want to see their alma mater succeed on the field. Indeed, as the Penn State saga has shown us, big-time football scandals—and yes, despite the protestations of the late Paterno and others, the Sandusky case is very much a football scandal—are also university scandals. And the problems of big-time college sports, including fair treatment of athletes and students, are not just the problems of university athletic departments or the NCAA: they are problems endemic to American higher education.

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In The Rise of Gridiron University, Brian M. Ingrassia, an Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State, examines the rise of “big-time” college football from the first game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 to the development what might be called its “love-hate relationship” with the American university by the 1930s. Ingrassia makes the case that the rise of big-time football cannot be understood apart from the rise of the modern university; more provocatively, however, he shows that the rise of the modern university cannot be understood apart from the rise of big-time football. As he explains through a juxtaposition of Stanford University’s opening convocation in October 1891 and the first football game between would-be rivals Stanford and the University of California the following spring (the latter event, by the way, drew more spectators than the former), the intellectual project that is the modern research university and the popular culture spectacle that is big-time college football are “sides of the same coin” (p. 3).

Ingrassia’s use of the term “big-time” to describe college football at the turn of the twentieth century is a deliberate reference to another popular culture spectacle of the period: vaudeville shows. Vaudeville companies, Ingrassia explains, were “dubbed either big-time or small-time, depending on how far they traveled, the size of the cities or theaters where they performed, and the number of tickets they sold. Like the most famous vaudeville outfits, big-time football programs, by definition, attracted the most media attention, drew the largest number of paying spectators, and charged the highest ticket prices” (p. 5). To be sure, football was not the only sport played at American colleges in the late nineteenth century, but it was by far the most popular and the most lucrative. Despite some misgivings, however, many university leaders, as well as leading faculty, were optimistic about the place of big-time football in the university. It would not be until the 1920s that “the stereotypical ivory tower intellectual—alienated from the public and critical of popular sport—was born” (p. 3).

Big-time (and small-time) college football appealed to academics and intellectuals in the early 1900s for several reasons. Ambitious university presidents like the University of Chicago’s William Rainey Harper saw football as a way to generate publicity, or, in today’s language, to grow the brand of his new university. Psychologists touted the potential of football to teach discipline and morality, and to instill manly vigor in young men otherwise made soft by modern academic and professional work. Social scientists argued that football was not only beneficial for players and coaches, but for spectators as well. Economist and MIT President Francis Walker believed that “football would help students understand and succeed in the modern industrial order” (p. 95), while University of Chicago anthropologist and sociologist William I. Thomas argued that big-time football taught players and spectators alike about the “gaming instinct,’ an innate trait that had resulted from millennia of natural selection” (p. 100). Above all, for most academics and university leaders, football was seen as a way to demonstrate the utility of the modern university to the wider public: at its best, supporters like Thomas argued, it was a form of “university extension” or “public engagement” that bridged the gap between the highbrow culture of the research university and the lowbrow appeal of popular culture.

The crux of Ingrassia’s narrative, however, is that the university’s embrace of big-time football in the early 1900s was a kind of Faustian bargain from which it could not escape. Even the most ardent supports of football within the academy realized the incompatibility of popular sport with the intellectual mission of the university, yet they refused to do away with it completely. Instead, they gave big-time sports its own department—often the department of athletics or physical culture—and its own intellectual justification. Football coaches like Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg, “the nation’s first tenured professor of physical culture and athletics” (p. 117), were not only expected to produce winning teams, but to “teach” lessons in discipline and morals—a duty abdicated by the modern university professor who merely imparted specialized knowledge in his field. In the minds of early NCAA reformers, treating professional coaches like faculty members—instead of, apparently, hucksters and confidence men—was seen as a way to containprofessionalism and commercialism in college athletics, to “make college athletics safe for students, universities, and the public”(p. 66).

College football coaches took this notion—please excuse the metaphor—and ran with it. By the 1920s, entrepreneurial coaches had created for themselves lucrative personal brands based on the image of the “coach-as-educator.” Men like Princeton’s Bill Roper (Winning Football, 1920) and Penn’s John Heisman (Principles of Football, 1922) published popular manuals on the sport. Both men lauded football for its ability to teach discipline and self-control, but there was a catch: its benefits could only be achieved under the supervision of “trained experts” like themselves (p. 127). Other hallmarks of big-time football we know today became common: coaches jumped ship after only one year at a school for a big payday at a rival institution; some, like Heisman, negotiated contract packages which included a portion of gate receipts; and others, like Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, signed endorsement deals with companies like Studebaker and Wilson sporting goods. Further, as Ingrassia points out, the climate was already thick with hypocrisy. In 1925, when University of Illinois star player Harold “Red” Grange signed a professional contract with the Chicago Bears just after playing his final college game, his coach, Bob Zuppke, criticized the move. Despite signing with the Bears, Grange wanted to finish his degree at Illinois, but Zuppke would not let him, suggesting that he had tarnished his amateur status and the college game by deciding to go pro. As a college player, Grange had watched his coach, Zuppke, make a professional career out of football and reasoned, “what’s the difference if I make a living playing football?” (p. 135).

By the 1920s, then, big-time college football had, with the rise of massive concrete stadiums across the country, literally become cemented in the modern university. As a result of early university reformers’ efforts to capture the benefits of big-time football while minimizing its potential damages to the intellectual mission, the game became entrenched, both culturally and intellectually, as a part of university life. “In a modern academic landscape,” Ingrassia writes, “each department had to engage in a Darwin-like struggle for existence. Professors in the psychology department competed with experts in the sociology department for institutional resources, while research interests made them identify intellectually with psychology specialists in other universities, with whom they competed for academic prestige in their field. This was roughly analogous to the athletic department. The football team’s main job was to win games against other universities, not necessarily to uphold the research or teaching of the psychology or sociology departments”(p. 187). From that point forward, when faculty complained that big-time sports were distracting from the university mission, football coaches and athletics department leaders had a powerful rejoinder: winning games and generating revenue was what the university had asked them to do; they were competing for their share of prestige and resources like any other department of the university.

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While The Rise of Gridiron University looks to the past to explain the “uneasy alliance” between big-time football and the modern university, The Cartel, a brisk, lively read from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and historian Taylor Branch, forecasts the “imminent” decline of college athletics as we have come to know them. The focus of Branch’s argument—the weak spot, if you will, in the legal house of cards that is the NCAA—are those very notions of “amateurism” and the “student-athlete” made possible by the intellectual gymnastics of university football boosters a hundred years ago. Yet the specific term “student-athlete,” Branch points out, is a legal fiction artfully created by the NCAA in the post-World War II era to limit its liability for workers’-compensation claims and to protect an increasingly lucrative empire built on television revenue. Examining the status of several pending lawsuits against the NCAA, Branch predicts that this legal fiction will soon be exposed, and, once it is, that the NCAA as we know it will cease to exist.

As Branch explains, prior to the invention of the term “student-athlete,” it was generally unclear as to what rights college athletes possessed in their roles as either students or athletes. As both Branch and Ingrassia make clear, payments to college football players were common, if disguised or frowned upon, for much of the sport’s history in the first half of the twentieth century. A highly-publicized Carnegie Foundation report in 1929 on the problem of cheating and corruption in college sports found, “Of the 112 schools surveyed, eighty-one flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios. Fans ignored the uproar, and two-thirds of the colleges mentioned told the New York Timesthat they planned no changes.” In some cases, it was clear that football players viewed themselves as workers. “In 1939,” Branch writes, “freshmen players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than they their upperclassmen teammates.”

The legal conception of the “student-athlete” was meant to combat these very claims of college athletes as workers. “The term came into play in the 1950s,” Branch writes, “when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workers’-compensation death benefits.” The case prompted all sorts of new legal questions: “Did [Dennison’s] football scholarship make the fatal collision a ‘work-related’ accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits?” The NCAA member institutions all agreed that Dennison was not eligible for such benefits. The Supreme Court of Colorado concurred, noting that the college was “not in the football business,” and cases like Dennison’s would fall in the favor of the NCAA for the next several decades. When, in 1974, Texas Christian University running back Kent Waldrep became a paraplegic as a result of taking a hit in a game against Alabama, TCU stopped paying his medical bills after nine months. Waldrep’s case, however, did make a legal impact; in 1990, “the White House honored Waldrep’s team of legislative catalysts at the signing ceremony for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

As Branch explains it, “the term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards or their peers; that they were students meant that they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athletebecame the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

As a journalist, Branch has a nose for hypocrisy and in several passages he lets the hypocrites speak for themselves. In a chapter on “Coaches and Scapegoats,” Branch describes the response of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban to reports of professional agents contacting his players and hanging around practice. Saban said, “I hate to say this, but how are [these agents] any better than a pimp? I have no respect for people who do that to young people. None.” What Branch doesn’t add is that Saban has a compensation packagethat pays him more than $5 million a year, and that he’s worked his way to the top of the college football coaching ladder through positions at three other schools, as well as a short, but unsuccessful, stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins—a career, for the most part, built upon what Branch calls college players’ “willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work.” Instead, Branch lets former Louisiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown put it more bluntly. Brown says, “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.”

Despite the many egregious examples of coaches, universities, broadcast networks, and corporations making hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars based on the work scholarship athletes (not too mention many other instances of draconian NCAA penalties for players who, with no spending money of their own, have received a new suit to attend an awards show or plane tickets home to visit family), Branch’s ultimate goal is not to ensure that college athletes are paid for their performance. To be clear, he would be content with college athletes being paid—a position on which he admits he has evolved over the years. However, his primary concern, outlined in the final chapter, is that college athletes receive the same rights as any other college student, which includes having a voice in decisions that concern them. “The most basic reform,” Branch writes, “would treat the students as what they are—adults, with rights and reason of their own—and grant them a meaningful voice in NCAA deliberations.”

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The outcome of pending lawsuits against the NCAA (see, for example, O’Bannon v. the NCAA), as well as the potential for big-time football and basketball schools to negotiate their own television contracts—to “cut out the middleman,” in Branch’s words—may very well bring about the demise of the NCAA as forecasted by Branch. But, as both of these books demonstrate, the real and perceived problems of big-time college athletics are not ones that can be solved by NCAA reform alone. In the wake of the Freeh report, many have called for the NCAA to impose drastic sanctions on Penn State’s football program, and it appears the program will indeed be subject to what are being described as “corrective and punitive measures.”  

However, as Branch’s book, in particular, makes clear, the historical role of the NCAA has been as the enforcer of a dubious code of amateur competition that relieves big-time football programs from having to police one another. Prior to the Penn State case, the NCAA’s harshest penalties have been reserved for violations of this code: see, for example, the “death penalty” (an inelegant term for a program suspension) given the Southern Methodist University football program in the 1980s when it was discovered that players were receiving regular payments, or the bowl ban imposed on the University of Southern California when it was discovered that Heisman trophy winner Reggie Bush and his family received gifts from program boosters totaling several hundred thousand dollars. Thus, while the crimes committed at Penn State certainly fall under the category of a “football scandal,” these were not the type of incidents that the NCAA was designed to police. It has never been the NCAA’s role to ensure that, within universities, football programs and athletics departments did not become outsized forces, capable of bending students, tutors, deans, and administrators to their will. That sort of internal policing is the job of universities and their various constituencies.

True reform, then, lies at the feet of the institutions that support big-time athletics and which comprise the membership of the NCAA. As Branch notes, a good first step would be to give students athletes a voice in the NCAA; an even better step, in my view, would be to give students—athletes and otherwise—a meaningful voice in how their institutions manage big-time (or small-time) athletics. As Ingrassia’s book demonstrates, coaches and athletics directors in the 1920s based their claims to authority and expertise on their status as well-intentioned “adults” who would impart valuable lessons to immature college athletes. Yet, as Branch and the Penn State scandal remind us, even the supposedly untouchable icon that was Joe Paterno—whose personal motto was “success with honor”—is capable of moral weakness in the face of money, power, and prestige.

As in other areas of university life, decisions about the place of athletics, like other debates about the university’s mission related to teaching and research, must involve the entire community. At Penn State, Joe Paterno’s claim to supreme moral authority, made possible by the vast amounts of revenue and publicity his football program brought the university, meant that his players and coaches were allowed special privileges and were not subject to the rules and regulations of the wider university. Paterno also, as the Freeh report has made clear, contributed to a culture in which some of the least powerful members of the community—victims, their families, and the janitor who witnessed one of Sandusky’s criminal acts—were afraid to speak up, or were not taken seriously when they did so. The case of Jerry Sandusky may be a uniquely horrifying example of a criminal abuse of power, but it was one that was made possible by a football culture that valued self-preservation above the concerns of the university and the wider community.

Ultimately, then, the question of how harsh the NCAA punishes the Penn State football program is somewhat beside the point. Universities need to establish shared governance structures which include the voices of students, faculty, staff, and others on all matters, from athletics to academics, but perhaps most especially in the area of big-time athletics. Organizations like the NCAA may have a role to play in punishing bad behavior on and off the field, but ultimately colleges and universities themselves must be responsible for ensuring that the quest for revenue and prestige does not detract from the educational mission, nor does it demean the rights of the least powerful members of the university community.

You can reach Nick at nstrohl@wisc.edu

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