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Original Issue


In 1939 the University of Chicago, under Robert M. Hutchins, abandoned football. Recently there has been a move to reinstate the sport, but the ex-president still believes higher education and football should not be mixed

The University of Chicago abandoned intercollegiate football in 1939 because the game hampered the university's efforts to become the kind of institution it aspired to be. The university believed that it should devote itself to education, research and scholarship. Intercollegiate football has little to-do with any of these things and an institution that is to do well in them will have to concentrate upon them and rid itself of irrelevancies, no matter how attractive or profitable. Football has no place in the kind of institution Chicago aspires to be.

It has been argued that Chicago is different. Perhaps it is and maybe it is just that difference that enabled the university to separate football from education.

Chicago is one of the few endowed universities in the U.S. that did not grow out of a college. It was founded as a university, to engage in advanced study, research and professional training, together with such basic education as was necessary to prepare students for the graduate level. Its enrollment is comparatively small. Of 7,500 full-time students, 50% were in graduate courses. Forty per cent of the undergraduates were women and a very large number were working their way through.

The appeal of the university was to those who shared its aims. Students came to study and the alumni, an unusual proportion of whom were teachers and members of the learned professions, agreed that that was what they should be doing.


Other institutions in the Midwest may have wanted to develop programs similar to Chicago's, perhaps even drop football, but they were not as free to act as the university was. They all had limitations of governmental or denominational control; they had a different kind of alumni or a different relationship with them; or they were without the financial resources that the University of Chicago commanded. The university, far from feeling a duty to conform, believed that its principal reason for existence was to criticize and improve upon current educational practices.

For their difference Chicago students are often considered anomalies in the American college scene. In a recent student election, for example, the following battle cry was scrawled on a wall near the Midway: "Keating is a neo-classicist dog." But this, though suggestive, is only superficial. Chicago students look as "normal" to me as any I meet elsewhere. And their college life is lively enough. At last reports there were 141 recognized student organizations on the campus.

Indeed, that is one of the points. The university hoped to prove that "normal" young Americans could get excited about the life of the mind. To the disintegrated curriculum common in this country, which will frustrate anybody's attempts to make sense of it, the university opposed an intelligible program of education, and the students did get excited about it. The late Alfred North Whitehead remarked that the place that seemed to him most like what he imagined ancient Athens to have been was the University of Chicago.


The ancient Athenians were as crazy about sport as modern Americans are. So were the ancient Romans and the Renaissance Italians. So are contemporary Britons and Germans. But we Americans are the only people in human history who ever got sport mixed up with higher education. No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment. In some other countries university athletic teams are unheard of; in others; like England, the teams are there, but their activities are valued chiefly as affording the opportunity for them and their adherents to assemble in the open air. Anybody who has watched, as I have, 12 university presidents spend half a day solemnly discussing the Rose Bowl agreement, or anybody who has read—as who has not?—portentous discussions of the "decline" of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago because of the recurring defeats of its football team must realize that we in America are in a different world.

Maybe it is a better one. But I doubt it. I believe that one of the reasons why we attach such importance to the results of football games is that we have no clear idea of what a college or university is. We can't understand these institutions, even if we have graduated from one; but we can grasp the figures on the scoreboard.


Walter P. Metzger of Columbia, writing in a recent number of the Antioch Review, tells the story: "In asking 'what should the university be?' every need has clamored for recognition, every craft has hoped to belong—and the result has been the unhappy association of piddling vocational and important intellectual interests, the nestling together—under one faculty—of searchers, conservers and craftsmen, the crowding together of institutes, departments, hospitals, dormitories, restaurants, apartment houses and football stadium all under the canopy of a single administration. The university in America is not a community of scholars, but an enormous agglomerate service station, where one can be born, go to kindergarten, lower school and high school, meet the girl friend and get married; where one can get religious solace or psychiatric help; where one learns to turn out a newspaper, to do bookkeeping, to cook. No wonder the universities have been hiring generals to run this domain."

Or consider the unconscious pathos of a recent address by the president of the College of the Pacific, an address that was thought so successful in justifying football that it was distributed by Tide Water Associated Oil Company, which likes football because people use gasoline to get to the games. After pointing out that philosophy was once the "integrating force" in higher education, the president of the College of the Pacific goes on to say that such an integrating force is missing, and is needed, today. He finds that neither science nor religion can play this role.

He then says: "The curriculum has become diversified; there are numerous electives. Few study the same courses or sit under the same professors.... So, in this period of intellectual and social disintegration of the American college, all unite in football....Football has become more than a spectacle; it has become a symbol; it has become one of the great intangibles not only of college but of our American life. Actually, if you want to look at it on a higher level, football has become the spiritual core of the modern campus."

What a spiritual core! Here is a description of the spiritual contribution of big-time football by the late Jeff Cravath. "Nearly all colleges still playing big-time schedules have been forced into the open market to obtain their raw material. They must bid for the best players—and make concessions to keep them. The fact that the system reduces the boys to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos is ignored.

"To keep up the pretense of purity and still produce winning football teams is no small job.... Colleges, even state institutions, need money to survive. In 99 cases out of 100, the money must come from wealthy alumni, or in some state schools, from legislatures which are dominated by politically prominent alumni. The alumni demand winning football teams. To get winning teams, colleges must violate the rules they themselves have made.

"A college president must know the corrupt practices that are being used to build his football squad. But if he tries to stop them, he runs afoul of prominent alumni on the board of trustees or board of regents, or alumni with endowment-available money. The president needs that money to keep his school going."

I agree with Mr. Cravath that the troubles of football began when it became big business. This business, like any other, has to pay. The only paying football is winning football. If you are going to win, you have to have the material; there is no substitute. The solution of the football problem at Chicago that was urged upon me was the usual one: fire the coach. The coach who led Chicago through its last disastrous seasons went to Stanford and took his team to the Rose Bowl in his first year. He had the material at Stanford.


You have to get the material, and you have to keep it eligible and happy. In sentencing prisoners who had been convicted of bribing or taking bribes to arrange the scores of intercollegiate basketball games to meet the wishes of gamblers, Judge Saul S. Streit pointed out that one convicted university player in his senior year took courses in music, oil painting, rhythms and dance, public speaking, and physical education. Eight players of another university involved in the scandal were majoring in physical education, and among the courses for which credit was given were handball, elementary swimming, social dancing, football and first aid.

The judge used harsh words: "The responsibility for the sports scandal must be shared not only by the crooked fixers and corrupt players, but also by the college administrations, coaches and alumni groups who participate in this evil system of commercialism and over-emphasis."

These remarks apply to football as much as to basketball—and perhaps more. A larger number of Americans might participate in basketball, but it is football supremacy that stirs their souls—and sometimes, I fear, corrupts.

When people tell you about the advantages of intercollegiate football, they almost always mean winning football. Even those who think of the game as the spiritual core of higher education would have to admit that the spiritual effects of continual defeats were somewhat dubious. Certainly the spirits of alumni, local businessmen and newspapers and prospective donors will not be raised by a long string of losses.


The college president's dream, which seldom comes true, was gloriously realized on Nov. 23,1953, when Hugh Roy Cullen, speaking at a "campus pep rally" at the University of Houston, said, "The great spirit and determination shown by the Cougars last Saturday in defeating Baylor filled me with enthusiasm and prompts me to do something for our great university....I have decided to give the university $2,225,000 in oil payments." You will notice that Houston defeated Baylor. Did any Texas oil man say that the great spirit and determination shown by Baylor in winning a moral victory over Houston prompted him to do something for that great university? Not one, although soon after Cullen did give Baylor's medical school one million dollars. There was no connection between the game and the gift.

To anybody seriously interested in education intercollegiate football presents itself as an infernal nuisance. If all the time, thought and effort that university presidents, professors and pressagents have had to devote to this subject could have been spent on working out and explaining to the public a defensible program of higher education we should long since have solved every problem that confronts the colleges and universities of the U.S. Since there is no visible connection between big-time football and higher education, the tremendous importance attached to it by colleges and universities can only confuse the public about what these institutions are. We know what you get if you lose. What do you get if you win? When Minnesota was at the height of its football power, the president offered me the team and the stadium if I would take them away: his team was so successful that he could not interest the people of the state in anything else.

Nobody questions the value of exercise, recreation and sport. To the extent that a university wishes to make opportunities of this kind available to its students, it should do so as a part of its normal expenditures, chargeable to its regular budget; it should not expect intercollegiate athletics to foot the bill. A football squad usually numbers 45. It is absurd to talk as though an institution that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on this select group, ordinarily the group that needs physical training least, and pays little attention to opportunities for intramural sport, is doing so in the name of health, exercise and recreation. The only exercise for the majority is climbing up and down stadium stairs.


Are there any conditions under which intercollegiate football can be an asset to a college or university? I think not. There are conditions under which it can be less of a nuisance, or a less infernal nuisance. These conditions are hard to bring about and still harder to maintain. If you should succeed, you will do so only with an expenditure of time and effort that could more profitably be devoted to other things. The first requirement is agreement on the part of your constituency that the institution is to be represented by students, and by students who have come to the college in the ordinary way, with no special inducements, and who are staying in college following the regular curriculum, with no special treatment. The second requirement is even more difficult; you have to find convenient rivals of about the same size, whose constituencies have the same convictions. For if they have not, you will be continuously and unmercifully defeated, and this is something that your constituency will not be able to stand indefinitely. On this rock all the great attempts of the last 30 years to "clean up" or "de-emphasize" football have split; intercollegiate football is no "cleaner" or less emphasized now than it was in 1925 because the temptation to break the rules of a conference becomes irresistible sooner or later to some of the members of it. You then have a scandal, a clean-up, new resolutions, and the process goes on as before.

The real hope lies in the slow but steady progress of professional football. If the colleges and universities had had the courage to take the money out of football by admitting all comers free, they could have made it a game instead of a business and removed the temptations that the money has made inevitable and irresistible. Professional football is destined to perform this service to higher education. Not enough people will pay enough money to support big-time intercollegiate football in the style to which it has become accustomed when for the same price they can see real professionals, their minds unconfused by thoughts of education, play the game with true professional polish.


When professional football has reached this point, we shall be able to disentangle sport and higher education. Students can play (or not play) as they wish: their friends may attend and applaud if they like. It will be clear that this is relaxation from higher education, not the main purpose of it. Students will come to college to study. Alumni will believe that this is something a normal, red-blooded, young American can properly do. Donors will understand that they are asked to support the institution, not because it has succeeded in attracting a few boys who are huskier and faster than those representing another college, but because when they give it, their money will be well spent in improving education and advancing knowledge. The colleges and universities will be set free to be as good as they know how to be.

This happened at Chicago.


HUMOROUS HUTCHINS parodied himself in 1949 faculty show in which he dressed as football player.


SERIOUS HUTCHINS takes last look at campus in winter of 1951. He is now President of the Fund for the Republic.


Me? I'm here on a scholarship, whatever that is.