Progressivism tied to college football

September 9, 2012


— With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

The collective activity of team sports came after a great collective exertion, the Civil War, and two great social changes, urbanization and industrialization. This story is told well in “The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football” (University Press of Kansas) by Brian M. Ingrassia, a Middle Tennessee State University historian.

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production.      

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

As universities multiplied, football fueled the competition for prestige and other scarce resources. Shortly after it was founded, the University of Chicago hired as football coach the nation’s first tenured professor of physical culture and athletics, Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had played at Yale for Walter Camp, an early shaper of the rules and structure of intercollegiate football. Camp also was president of the New Haven Clock Co. Clocks were emblematic of modernity — workers punching time clocks, time-and-motion efficiency studies. Camp saw football as basic training for the managerial elites demanded by corporations.

Progressives saw football as training managers for the modern regulatory state. Ingrassia says a Yale professor, the Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner (who was Camp’s brother-in-law), produced one academic acolyte who thought the “English race” was establishing hegemony because it played the “sturdiest” sports.

Reinforced concrete and other advancements in construction were put to use building huge stadiums to bring the public onto campuses that, to many, seemed increasingly unintelligible. Ingrassia says “Harvard Stadium was the prototype” for dozens of early 20th-century stadiums. In 1914, the inaugural game in the Yale Bowl drew 70,055 spectators. The Alabama, LSU and Southern California football programs are the children of Harvard’s, Yale’s and Princeton’s.

“It’s kind of hard,” said Alabama’s Bear Bryant, “to rally ‘round a math class.” And today college football is said to give vast, fragmented universities a sense of community through shared ritual. In this year’s first “game of the century,” Alabama’s student-athletes played those from Michigan in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which is 605 miles and 1,191 miles from Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor, respectively.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    


liberalmorons 5 years, 4 months ago

And you wonder why most college students are morons.......How about teaching people academia instead of how to spike a ball....

Richard Heckler 5 years, 4 months ago

An Unhappy Anniversary

By Think Progress War Room Sept 7, 2012 at 4:12 pm

GOP Blocks More Than 1 Million Jobs for an Entire Year

Today is the day we got the monthly jobs report, which unfortunately did not meet expectations. But today is also important for a related reason — it’s the one year anniversary of the introduction of the American Jobs Act, a vital jobs bill that Republicans have been blocking since day one.

The plan included stimulus spending in the form of immediate infrastructure investments, tax credits for working Americans and employers to encourage consumer spending and job growth, and efforts to shore up state and local budgets to prevent further layoffs of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other public safety officials.

ThinkProgress’ Travis Waldron explains just how much the bill would’ve done if Republicans hadn’t repeatedly voted it down in the Senate and refused to even take it up the House:

–Moody’s Analytics estimated the American Jobs Act would create 1.9 million jobs and add two percent to gross domestic product.

The Economic Policy Institute estimated it would create 2.6 million jobs and protect an addition 1.6 million existing jobs.

The Macroeconomic Advisers predicted it would create 2.1 million jobs and boost GDP by 1.5 percent.

Goldman Sachs estimated it would add 1.5 percent to GDP.


Richard Heckler 5 years, 4 months ago

Con't from Think Progress

The American economy has continued to recover since the American Jobs Act failed. It added 96,000 jobs last month, according to today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report, making August the 30th consecutive month in which the private sector has grown.

But growth could have been faster: the public sector shed 7,000 jobs in August, adding to the more 700,000 it has lost since 2009. That includes hundreds of thousands of teachers and educators, firefighters, and police officers.

Had the public sector spent the last three years growing at its previous rate, unemployment would be at least a full point lower than it is now.

The American Jobs Act and policies like it would have unquestionably boosted job creation and economic growth, a stark contrast to the tax-cutting policiesput forth by congressional Republicans, whose “job creation” bills would have actually destroyed thousands of jobs.

Republicans nevertheless continue to ignore economists and basic economics, instead pushing supply-side tax policies that have repeatedly failed to boost job creation and economic growth.

BOTTOM LINE goes like this. It’s time for Republicans to stop sabotaging the economy for political reasons and start working with the president to put Americans back to work

Corey Williams 5 years, 4 months ago

"It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management." Heck George, that's any team sport today. Hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse...any game where an individual plays one of several positions can be said to subordinate the individual to the collectivity (team).
Maybe when George said "It (baseball) has no clock, no ties and no Liberal intrusions into the organized progression.", he forgot that the catcher doesn't play centerfield. Or that the pitcher doesn't play shortstop.
Maybe this is yet another opinion piece where George phoned it in because he didn't want to think that his beloved baseball ("All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs lost a double-header." Source: USA Weekend (04/01/1990)) is more like socialism that what he wants to admit.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Oh Geeze. College Football is a past time to many. Something to get excited about. To cheer for. Not some liberal progressive scheme.

SnakeFist 5 years, 4 months ago

So team sports are the first step to communism, huh? Wow, I guess any contribution to a group goal is anathema to regressives.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

George's war on "progressivism" is getting increasingly weird-- no, make that idiotic.

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

This article makes me just picture Mr. Will lying in bed, his sheets pulled up to his chin in undefined fear, whispering: "I see progressive people."

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 4 months ago

Will gathers together all things he dislikes and then proceeds to try to link them all as interrelated using some pretty stunning mental gymnastics (an individual sport).

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Maybe he collects the connect-the-dot place mats they give kids at restaurants and uses them as templates for his columns.

weeslicket 5 years, 4 months ago

unless i completely misread this editorial, it's really just mr. will summarizing a book.

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

"Wow...this is really becoming your M.O.: Can't argue against a point so you make fun and mock the messenger. At least Bozo has a logical point every so often. You on the other hand are defining yourself as a troll."

Shrug. You'll think whatever you want. But then, it is hard to take you seriously when on the last thread you couldn't see the irony in the fact that you responded to Everything that Anybody said, regardless of the content of their post, with: "Typical lib response, don't argue the point and try to discredit the messenger."

And, much the same as your posts on that thread, the ultimate, fatal flaw is your, and his, assumption of particular representative values, which when called on your assumptions you responded with, basically: "dammit, that's just the way that it obviously is." Given, in this case, a timeline of well over 100 years, you can cherry pick anything to build whatever Grand Narrative that you care to construct, particularly when you don't have to back it up with anything other than a statement of how obvious it obviously is.

I argue points when I see it as being worth something. You're not worth it.

Paul Wilson 5 years, 4 months ago

See...a lot of blather to say absolutely nothing.
Irony? It was not "regardless of the content of their post". That's the point...there was no content to the post. Just like your attack earlier. No point...just an attack on the person. I find it amazing that you can't see how many of you don't argue the points and simply make fun of the person. Hope it makes you feel as 'intellectual' as you obviously think you are.

Mike Ford 5 years, 4 months ago

can I hear from the rest of the simpletons......the Chevy Volt is still being made.... the Hamtramck, Michigan plant is being re tooled for the 2014 Chevy Impala. The sale for the Volt are up from last year. Glad to know the simpletons quote rush verbatim and don't do research.....ugadaboogadyboo whatever.... As far as football goes....this Will guy has no knowledge of the history of this continent prior to White people. Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw tribal towns along with many other southeastern tribal nations played tvli or tali aka stickball to settle differences or issues between communities. This ball game was called the Little Brother of War hundreds if not thousands of players were involved and to this day stickball is still played in Mississippi and Oklahoma and North Carolina. I remember when this Will character blew a gasket over the claim that the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy influenced Ben Franklin when he wrote the US Constitution after hearing an Onandaga leader speak of the way this Confederacy dealt with issues amongst it's six or so members in the 1750's. I guess it's nice for Will to speak the mythology that these conservatives need to believe in.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 4 months ago

Too bad right-wingers can no longer like college and professional football. Gonna suck this time of year.

Mixolydian 5 years, 4 months ago

I thought it was going to be an interesting article on the parasitic relationship between football and higher education, but it took a weird turn pretty quick.

The best part of this article, I now have something to spend all my collected BN gift cards on: “The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football” (University Press of Kansas). Sounds like a very good read.

voevoda 5 years, 4 months ago

The commercialization of collegiate athletics started long before Obama was born. So how could it be his fault? This article is just another in a series of pathetic attempts by George Will to smear Obama by condemning other people with whom Obama--only in Will's warped perception--is associated.

tomatogrower 5 years, 4 months ago

Although I do think sports has become too important in high school and college, this article is just plain weird. I think he is saying that team work is bad? I think they are taking this rugged individual thing too far.

In fact, I thought the whole big money, commercialization of college sports, and the team hot shot players would seem to play into capitalism. Maybe he doesn't like all those black players getting an education and making a lot of money if they go professional.

And he considers the social sciences a conspiracy against conservatives? Although I don't often agree with Will, he usually makes more sense. I kept looking to see if Cal Thomas had written the column.

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

"In fact, I thought the whole big money, commercialization of college sports, and the team hot shot players would seem to play into capitalism. Maybe he doesn't like all those black players getting an education and making a lot of money if they go professional."

Please, that last sentence is an offensive reach, and tarnishes the first one, where you might be onto something. I certainly think that the money plays much more of a direct role in this process than some phantom, poorly (read:not at all) defined "progressivism".

Personally, don't see anything wrong with that either. Most athletic departments in the big schools are pretty much entities of their own, largely self-sustained from the same money pool that makes these kids go to school for their own career training. That training just happens to be in their sport, their career of choice, rather than the standard education. But of course, since Will could never blame the forces of capitalism, he has to find someone or something else to blame for what he seems to regard as a problem.

Getaroom 5 years, 4 months ago

Waha! What a stretch even for him! George Will at his most delusional yet making ties to Football and Education via Progressives. There is indeed something strange amiss in the Universe.

It was foretold in a vision long ago that George Gurley and George Wiil will one day be together in Baldwin, spinning more psychotic fantasies. The Plutocracy has arrived in full, there is no hope, and the magnetic poles have shifted yet another time, causing a reversal in the time-warp continuum and we find Progressives turned into evil Corporations(which are people too) who influence pedaling not only in Government, but College football too? This can only be because there is high count for those consuming large amounts of the mind altering potion created by the famous Legion of Deceivers known to us now as the NeoConTeaPartyGOP.

The George's must feel quite frantic now, intimated by the thought of the black Obama, winning the election and still standing at the helm. Where is that Rapture when you need a good fantasy turned on?

Mixolydian 5 years, 4 months ago

"a black Obama?" You race baiters are all a few race cards short of a full deck.

fiddleback 5 years, 4 months ago

I must say, I much preferred Mr. Will's screed on those vile dungarees worn by the common folk: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/15/AR2009041502861.html

George is probably still hoarding AOL minutes, but if he knew about 'The Facebook' and 'The Twitter', I'm sure he'd have no trouble compiling quite the indictment for their role in liberal indoctrination. Alas, for now, he seems confined to trends that originated before 1900...

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

Chuckle, I remember that column was in this paper when he wrote it (2009!? Jeezus where has the time gone?!).

I like some of Will's columns. From my point of view he has a higher percentage of columns that actively attempt thought rather than demagoguery, at least when contrasted with Krauthammar (infrequent), and Cal Thomas (pretty much never). But sometimes he's really just crapping on something because, well, he's old and the world's kind of passed him by.

tomatogrower 5 years, 4 months ago

Well, I'm old, and I like my denim. Denim is wonderful. Only stuffy, snobs don't like denim.

Corey Williams 5 years, 4 months ago

This column just proves that if you take away George's thesaurus, he's just like cal thomas.

riverdrifter 5 years, 4 months ago

"Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create."

"We want a university our football team can be proud of." I can't cite who first said that but it is from long, long ago. Weak column from Will. Worse yet, it's a lazy column from him. Time to retire George. No wait: you're a conservative Republican. You've never ever 'worked'.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

George Will makes leaping assumptions here and basically is making stuff up. Though this is benign, speaking of football, he also does it with politics. It is akin to lying, and frankly, the George Will's of the world are contributing to and increasing the discord that is occuring in this country. The enemy is us. And like it or not, George Will is included in us....sadly.

"The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself".

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