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Thirty years of campus observation leads the author, a professor of comparative literature at Rutgers University, to conclude that this generation knows the proper place of sport—and that his did not

People who teach in universities are painfully aware of the flow of time. For them a generation is not the conventional 30 years or so; it is four years, or the time it takes a student to proceed from freshman to graduate. The profession abounds in wry jokes directed against itself to the general point that the freshmen are getting younger every year. As the professor's hair thins, his students' becomes longer.

This process of rapid generation watching is deflating to the ego of aging professors, but it provides a rare advantage in assessing the sweep of events. Writers have been telling us for years about the remarkable changes in our life since World War II, and there can be no better index of such changes than students; they are articulate, ready to act (witness Columbia's riots) as well as to reflect and vulnerable to analysis in a manner that businessmen or politicians are not.

As a professor old enough to have been a student in the '30s, I find it useful and indeed instructive to compare my own student generation's attitude toward sports with that which I see among the bushy-haired young men I teach today. Just as the relationships between sport and society are more complex than one might think possible, so the place of sport in student minds over the past 30 years is at least equally complex. It is so involved, in fact, that I must indulge in a measure of autobiography in order to make completely plain the significant change to be observed in the student-sport relationship.

Between 1937 and 1941 the University of Minnesota had a student body of some 20,000—then considered huge, although small by postwar standards. The Depression was very much with us; it daily seared into the life of every student. Two-thirds of the students supported themselves wholly or in part by working at the menial jobs traditionally available. Although fees were low and expenses few, money was scarce. You could see yourself through a university year with $400, but with 25¢ to 30¢ an hour the going wage, it took you a year to save $400.

In the Midwest few parents were able to contribute to their offspring's higher education—that was known, taken for granted, and most students preferred it that way. If we occasionally pitied ourselves for not having money from home and a pleasant life in the fraternity or sorority houses, we would not have sacrificed our independence in return for the kept life of the fortunate, frivolous few. Along with self-support went the hard-earned right to tell your father to go to hell, literally and figuratively. Most often we accomplished that result by picketing in downtown Minneapolis for the striking truckmen, by announcing ourselves as atheist-humanists, by joining the local Trotskyite cell (Minneapolis was never a Stalinist town) or simply by going to various left-wing meeting places and singing "Solidarity forever." Some of us became card-carrying party members, and some, like myself, did not actually sign up, because we could not sing the songs with a straight face and we lacked the money for dues. One of my friends enjoyed special status among us because his brother had been in Mexico as one of Trotsky's bodyguards. His stock went down, however, when Trotsky was murdered. Two other friends left the university to enlist with the Loyalists in Spain and, according to rumor, one was killed there. For us they were the equivalent or early Christian martyrs.

The other fact that dominated us even more than the Depression and politics was the coming war. We all knew that war was inevitable; each of us assumed that he would go off to it and be killed. We rather enjoyed the prospect of our imminent bloody death. It was a release from planning for the future and license to immediate enjoyment of the flesh, for which read getting high on beer whenever we could raise the price, and an occasional Dutch-treat date that might—but more likely might not—end up in someone's sack. Initially we were sympathetic to the America First Committee, for we were encouraged by the Trotskyites to see the crisis as an imperialistic, British mess. Later, by 1939, we were pro-British and pro-war, eager to go into it. In 1940 I wanted to join the Canadian Air Force, but my roommate persuaded me to stay on until our graduation in 1941. Then we'd volunteer for the Marines or the Navy and go get killed.

Life was not all politics and weekend bartending, however. A fair number of students did have their way paid. They did live at home or in fraternity houses, and they did live the lives of students as portrayed in the movies. They went to dances, and above all they went to football games. We, the self-supporting leftist rationalists, would not have been caught dead at a football game. Had the word been popular, we would have said that only squares went to football games. As it was, we called them "bourgeois," which is Marxist-Leninist for "square."

It is now necessary to remember that the University of Minnesota in particular and the Big Ten in general produced in the '20s and '30s a golden age in college football. At Minnesota, even for an un-bourgeois pro-Trotskyite, the memory of Bronko Nagurski was fresh. As late as 1937 Nagurski was with the Chicago Bears. Bernie Bierman was the peerless coach, and the names of Pug Lund and Andy Uram penetrated even into the leftist fastnesses. We also knew about Don Hutson at Alabama, of Fritz Crisler's coaching at Michigan, of Tommy Harmon and of Nile Kinnick at Iowa. When Minnesota won the conference title from Michigan in 1940 even the most hardened student political conspirator added an inch to his stature as he walked to the weekly party seminar, although he admitted the fact to no one, least of all to himself.

Minnesota was a true football power. Its stadium had been built in the '20s to equal the Yale Bowl. The players were regarded either as young gods by the squares or as stupid, corrupt oxen by my friends. And the sport was far more than a university pursuit. Students made up only a small proportion of the attendance at games; the population of the Twin Cities and of the state as a whole was fanatically there, seeming to outdo the Hollywood cliché of Saturday football.

Within the university proper, students could be classified with some delicacy according to their attitude toward sport. There was the minority who could afford the good student life, and they held season tickets and attended all football and basketball games without pausing to question their attitude. It was what you did, one of the reasons for attending the university. A second group lived in poverty and did not attend games because they could not pay the $6.50, as I recall, that a season ticket cost. They would have been glad to attend otherwise, and they had no antisport views. Then there was a large group made up of people like myself who equated attendance at games with cretinism, a betrayal of the proletarian masses and a waste of valuable time. Fraternities and sororities were the enemy and, since they were vocal supporters of college athletics, we were opposed to college athletics. Such was our snobbery that we organized something called the Jacobin Club and listed it with the dean as a fraternity simply to appear at the head of the published lists as the fraternity with the highest grade averages.

Objections to organized college athletics had little to do with one's physical fitness or with one's willingness to participate in sports. Some of the leftists were as fit as varsity football players from construction work and other heavy labor in the summer. I played tennis from age 13 and had played baseball from age 8. In retrospect, I think I represented still another group in that I hankered after going to football games, but I would not have dared for fear of losing political face. I wore my politics on my sleeve, but underneath my jacket I carried the sports page of the local newspaper, where I read accounts of the football team in season and followed the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs throughout the spring that France fell.

I did not see a college football game until I went to Harvard as a graduate student after World War II. So strong had been my Midwestern conditioning against football that I made my way into the stadium like a priest entering a bordello, yet I soon discovered that in the East things were different. I learned for a fact what I had earlier suspected, that even before the war you could be at once a roaring Communist and a raving rooter for Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Family patterns in the East were stronger, there was more money about, and students were more healthily relaxed about sport than we in the Midwest were ever permitted to be.

That students today are an entirely different breed from those in the '30s is news to no one. They no longer have to tell their fathers to go to hell because they assume he is already there, along with the rest of the family—though they are happy enough to cash monthly checks from the lower depths. Superficial sociology states that prosperity and television have caused the change. There are more interesting reasons, however, that are not so apparent.

Today students at most schools are fully as occupied with politics as they were in the '30s, perhaps even more so. The war they face, the war in Vietnam, requires a subtlety of analysis that World War II never demanded from my generation. Once engaged, we were not required to justify ourselves or the war. But the undeclared war of today has created for students an agonizing set of alternatives, and their agony has in turn given their characters a depth and judiciousness that we lacked utterly. That depth and judiciousness carries over from politics to every avenue of their lives.

Where sport is concerned, a revolution has occurred. Bearded and barefoot students today find it possible to think about the draft, drugs, Marcel Proust and Fran Tarkenton simultaneously and without any sense of ludicrousness. I know a student who took an early bus back from a protest march in Washington in order not to miss a Giant-Packer game on television. I have had dinner with a graduate student in his rooms who talked about his Ph.D. dissertation on Wallace Stevens until it was time for a replay on television of the Frazier-Mathis fight, on which he had previously bet. Frazier-Mathis replaced Wallace Stevens. Students who in my time would have disdained either interest or participation in athletics today play squash or tennis, or join baseball or touch-football teams. The question of sport vs. the intellectual life does not arise anymore. It would never occur to the present generation of students even to debate the subject. Students attend or do not attend college football games without any of the sense my generation had of taking a stand. Sport, in brief, has become a normal, natural part of life, including student life, and that is probably exactly as it should be.

A parallel change has occurred among men who were students in the '30s. I recall my sense of amazement and relief when I learned, five years ago, that an 18th-century English scholar whom I had known for a long time, a man who is the quintessence of the precious academic and one who would not in his youth have turned a conscious moment to the subject of athletics, was a passionate follower of the Mets. Only the fact that he spends his summers in British libraries prevents him from buying a season ticket to Shea Stadium.

It is now possible to go to a dinner party and talk not only shop, gossip, politics and war, but also sport, which is certainly a welcome addition. People who once faulted Hemingway for writing about baseball in The Old Man and the Sea may still fault him, but not on that ground. Ring Lardner's baseball stories are held in new esteem, while Bernard Malamud's The Natural is over-praised simply because it deals with baseball. Middle-aged men who never did anything physical, in part because of Midwestern political upbringing, are learning the joys of jogging, today's fashionable route into the world of sweat.

Why have such fundamental changes come about? History suggests an important part of the answer. Until recently the Midwest and Far West were guardians of the early American frontier ethic of manliness and of a special kind of individualism. Although the actual frontier had disappeared by 1900, memories of it remained powerful at least until 1940. The notion of survival through physical prowess, through the ability to shoot straight, to work long hours, to hunt skillfully, to build one's own house, to ride, to drive a team, to master and to practice the myriad skills necessary to life on spread-out farms and in small towns, was uppermost in every man's mind. When existence, after industrialization, became somewhat more benign than it had been, the thought of manliness and independence did not vanish overnight. It still remained for every father's son to prove himself a man, and if the father no longer ran traps or plowed 80 acres, there was the unspoken assumption that the son would prove his manliness—to his father, to the community and to himself—through participation in athletics. Anyone who was physically fit and not interested in sport was suspect. "Homosexual" was a word found only in medical books, but "sissy" served a broad semantic spectrum in its place. It is not an accident that the Packers began in Green Bay, Wis. as early as 1919 rather than in Boston or Miami.

It was not until the Depression that the frontier ethic was challenged on a broad front. That vast breakdown in economic and social structures enforced upon the young the necessity to question doctrines that had been accepted for a century. Thus my own generation's radicalism, not only in politics but in attitudes toward athletics. We had been led, because of our peculiar history, to associate manliness, sport and economic individualism with a system that had failed us as individuals, a system that was in every identifiable sense bankrupt. Because of our attitudes, the older generation proclaimed loud and clear that we were mental and physical misfits and that we would never be ready to fight the coming war. Almost all the charges that are made against the radical young today were made against us, and we paid just about as much attention to them. We had ceased to equate football with warfare, but we knew that when war came we would acquit ourselves as well or better than our fathers had.

That confidence, born of economic survival in the Depression and later of survival in World War II, probably did more to rid sport of the curse of pseu-dovirility than any other factor. Certainly since World War II it has been possible for a young man to have a natural interest in sport, together with a natural interest in the arts, politics or any other physical and intellectual pursuit, without self-consciousness or embarrassment. The proof is in the grandstands. At a sporting event today is a far wider selection of the society than in the past, including men who, a few years ago, would not have dreamed of watching a baseball game or of encouraging their young to do so.

At the same time, as every fan knows, many athletes themselves are different from their prototypes of the '20s and '30s. The .300 hitter no longer is likely to be a boozing womanizer in his spare time, who when he retires opens a saloon in his home town and lives out his days in a beery haze, reminiscing about past glories. Instead, he may well have finished college and have a wife, two children, two houses and a share in a brokerage firm. The modern fullback is not the broken-nosed bruiser of legend, communicating only in grunts, but an articulate, even elegant, gent who gives as much thought to his future after his playing days as to the team's playbook.

Even though both professional and college sports may have lost some of their earlier color with the passing of their flamboyant heroes, they have gained a great deal by the caliber of the attention they have recently drawn. Having ceased to symbolize the frontier ethic of virility, sport in the U.S. increasingly symbolizes what it is supposed to have meant to the Greeks: a sound mind in a sound body, the product of a psyche at one with itself and its world.

A sense of the changed attitude toward sport—not only among students but among a large, variegated public—can be found in a recent play, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. The play, which received considerable acclaim when staged in Washington, deals with the career of Jack Johnson, the legendary Negro fighter whose career ended when he allegedly threw the world championship. It explores certain basic American attitudes toward boxing and, by implication, toward all sport; it places race relations in special focus and it works through various dubious nooks and crannies in our national character. For virtually the first time sport is used in a serious dramatic work in such a way that a valid statement is registered about society.

All this, I think, makes it safe to say that we are seeing the coming of age of sport within the framework of our society. Sport is attaining its rightful place. Generations of coaches have spoken piously about the benefits of sport to society, but only now, perhaps, with the appearance of a new attitude, can their words take on a true meaning.


Three decades ago the college athlete was worshiped as a god by the fraternity-sorority set but was ridiculed by campus intellectuals. Now sport has lost both its deified status and its stigma as students simultaneously pursue all manner of academic and athletic interests.


Memories of frontier life were still fresh in the minds of Midwesterners in the '30s, and sons were expected to prove their manliness through sport.