Turf Wars

A History of College Sports

Published: December 14, 2011

Chicago Kent College of Law indoor baseball player, M. Ryan. 1910.

Quick — what’s the first thing that comes to mind when we say “college sports?” Did you think “scandal?” What about “pay-for-play?”

College sports have provided some of the most heated controversies of the year, and so we can’t help but wonder; why do sports even exist at colleges and universities? After all, it seems like most of the problems associated with amateur athletics would disappear if they weren’t taking place at places of “higher learning.”

In this episode, we’re going to look at the origins of college sports, and the ways universities have justified athletics on their campuses throughout history. And that question about paying student athletes? Turns out… it goes back a lot further than you might think.

Let us know what you want to know! Share your stories, questions, and ideas below.


Comments (10)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Bob

    I wonder if you have come across the idea that the “student-athlete” was a category that was invented to deny athletes the rights of any other person who worked at the stadium?

  2. Tom

    Even when I attended college in the late 1980s, the ‘controversy’ of so-called student athletes was in the news with the NCAA sanctioning schools for the actions of the students no longer enrolled. Colleges were big and not big names like OSU, NCSU, UNLV, etc.

    From my tenure on campus, student athletics seemed to exist in name only. The athletes got the best dorm rooms available, had tutors paid by the university, [allegedly] wore new shoes every game by a leading athletic company, spending money, best tickets to the university games, etc. For all purposes, these athletes were paid – not with money but in kind. Then the allegations of University boosters and supporter giving the athletes new cars, clothes, etc. Basically, the ethos was if it was not a technical violation of the rules, who cares. Hence how we got to the current generation that really doesn’t care about fair play, selective theology, or their fellow person.

    The loss of amateur sports took a nose dive when it was found that other countries were using professional paid athletes for their national Olympic teams, a supposed amateur sport. The US response, was something like F*** the rules and we used our own professional athletes in the following years.

    Basically, lets face reality of the situation, make all athletics PAID professions.

    On another note, in history, was there anything like amateur athletics? I have seen many books calling amateur sports a myth of our imagination.

  3. William Lanouette

    “Amateur” sport followed “professional” sport with rowing in the USA, where in the 1860s and 1870s pro rowing was America’s most popular and lucrative sport. In 1872 a National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (today US Rowing) was founded to distance itself from the rigged bets, thrown races, poisoned oarsmen, and crooked betting pools of the professionals. Yet colleges still hired these reviled pro rowers as their coaches: John Biglin at Amherst College and Dartmouth, Ellis Ward at Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania, Charles Courtney at Cornell, and James Ten Eyck at Syracuse University.

    For background on the rise and ruin of pro rowing see “Olympic rowing — you need both grace and guts” in “Smithsonian” magazine, July 1996, 88-99 by William Lanouette.

  4. Marc Hutzell

    I was born and raised in Carlisle Pennsylvania. As such, Jim Thorpe is someone all school children learn about at an early age. Well, that and the battle of Gettysburg. So my question is, was he the first major (ie well known) athlete to run into problems when it came to amateur and professional status? I will always believe his olympic medals should not have been taken away from him.
    great show, all the best
    Marc Hutzell
    Silver Spring MD.

  5. Kristin Morris

    The discussion about the abuses in college sports always centers on the male-dominated “marquee” sports – football and men’s basketball. Don’t forget female student athletes, most of whom are not on scholarship and have no pro leagues for their sports. Without college-level competition, most of these women wouldn’t have any chance to exercise their talents (no pun intended). Title IX gave women the opportunity to play and compete at the college level. The budget issues that have developed as a result of Title IX’s fiscal parity clause, I think, are part of the story here, as boosters have felt the need to raise money to prop up marquee sports outside of the university’s budget.

  6. Chuck I.

    Over the last 2+ years, the landscape of college sports has changed dramatically thanks to a number of major universities changing conferences. Indeed, I would venture to bet that “Conference Expansion” generates more responses then just about any other subject on your average college sports message board. My question is not so much about recent events–although it still amazes me that Clemson (a public, agricultural land-grant institution in a rural area of the deep south) and Boston College (a private, Jesuit, liberal arts college in a metropolitan area of New England) can somehow co-exist in the same conference. I am more interested in the historical concept of “the conference” as an entity in college athletics. How long have conferences been around? What were the original purposes behind forming a conference, and how has this changed or developed over time? Do conferences generally form the same legal entity (such as partnership, corporation, LLC, non-profit association, ect.), or can it vary? What role did they play before the NCAA, and how do they co-exist with the NCAA today?I know the NCAA has little influence over conferences or conference affiliation, but what power DO they have (if any)?

    Keith Dunnavant wrote a fantastic book called “The Fifty-Year Seduction”, and he would be a fantastic guest for this particular topic. His book highlighted one of my favorite quotes in legal history. It came from an attorney named Andy Coats (who I believe was the former mayor of Oklahoma City) when he was arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of NCAA v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma:

    MR. COATS: …And that’s what the lower courts found. They found that indeed, if this limitation of output, this limitation on the number of games was not in place, that there would be so many more games, mostly on the basis of local and regional circumstances.

    UNIDENTIFIED JUSTICE: So long as Oklahoma’s on every Saturday.

    MR. COATS: Well, it would be hoped, Your Honor, that the networks would want us. If we don’t do better than we did last year, they may not.

  7. Bruce Pencek

    What do we know about the college sports audiences and their take on the the amateur-pro debate or any other narrative about the purpose of collegiate athletics? Indeed, who were the audiences? Collegians? Townies? Did genteel fans prefer gentlemen and proles prefer pros? If so, then the rhetoric of amateurism could have been a way to keep unseemly people away from Alma Mate while nonetheless subsidizing it (which seems consistent with the Wilsonian Fuhrerprinzip) .

    And how do mascots fit into the conversation about the purpose of a university athletic program and/or its relation to the surrounding community? Two of you work for a university whose teams represents it as the aristocratic side of the English Civil War (except when it uses a pelagic game fish). My employer remembers a freedman’s turkey, with a later nod to a worker’s lunch box. Spiders suggest a lighthearted disposition toward games, in a city that takes itself too seriously. .

  8. Tom Powers

    Great topic! Football alone could fill a whole show. Does anyone remember when Centre and W&L and VMI were the major powers of college football in the South? Or Harvard and Yale?

    I think the show should take a look at the Jan Kemp affair at the University of Georgia. (For detail, see http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=forde_pat&id=3761411&sportCat=ncf.) Sadly, the mess Kemp exposed was nothing like my own experience at Georgia but 2-3 years before. Then, the coaches kept close watch on athletes’ performance. As a teacher there, I had to sign weekly statements concerning each athlete’s attendance, class participation, and academic performance. If I marked any athlete as anything less than sterling, I got a visit from an assistance coach asking what the athlete needed, and what I thought might be proper motivation that the coaches could impose. There were no special class sections for athletes. I was convinced that Georgia was doing it right! I still believe it. I felt completely supported by the coaches in my teaching efforts. Later, I had the opportunity to speak to Kemp, who told me that the horrors did not begin until after Georgia won the national championship in 1980 and in the process collected an incredible amount of money. It was then that the President allegedly altered the focus of the athletics program, valuing money produced by programs above all else. From there it was a series of short steps to the slough that Kemp exposed.

    Push this show. It’s also a good opportunity for Ed to point out the differences between FCS and BCS programs, like Virginia’s — even if UVa DID steal UR’s football coach!

    –tom powers
    UR ’69
    UGa ’78