With increasing regularity, we are made aware of scandals in intercollegiate athletics. For some programs this surfaces in the form of recruiting violations, as others find ways to use money and other benefits to gain influence with athletes. A few push athletes beyond reasonable limits sometimes resulting in tragedy. As the regulations evolve with greater specificity and clearer interpretation, the creativity of those seeking an advantage keeps pace. It’s disappointing. We wonder how we ever got to this point. Where are the days when we engaged in intercollegiate competition for its wholesome appeal and benefits to students? Shouldn’t we return to our purer roots in the true spirit of athletic competition? Perhaps a history lesson is in order.
Frederick Rudolph, a well-regarded historian during his years on the faculty of Williams College authored, The American College and University: A History (1962, 1990). In his chapter, “The Rise of Football,” Rudolph chronicles the earlier days of the game as it emerged among students at our colleges and universities.
It took a few years for the game to catch on, but its growth was extraordinary. In 1873 football seemed sufficiently ridiculous to prompt a classic remark of President Andrew D. White of Cornell. In response to a challenge from thirty players of the University of Michigan who wanted to arrange a game in Cleveland, President White telegraphed: “I will not permit thirty men to travel four hundred miles to merely agitate a bag of wind.” (pp. 373-374)
Despite the objections of a few of higher education’s noted leaders, the rise of football was inevitable, seemingly without reasonable boundary conditions. Rudolph writes,
The need for regulation was generally admitted, for the game intruded a spirit of athletic professionalism into an atmosphere where many believed that it did not belong. One year in the 1890s the University of Oregon football team in three successive contests with three different colleges found themselves playing against the same young man. (pp. 374-375)
The game, however, encouraged such a will to win that undergraduate and graduate imagination found its way around any traditional sense of ethics. A senior might invite the fullback on the freshman team to room with him and forget to ask him to share the charges. A student might make a preposterous wager with a star athlete and, of course, lose. Instead the money might go directly to a father or a brother. One college player so learned the price of his usefulness that without fear of failure he presented his laundry bill to the team manager just before game time with the words: “I cannot pay it. You pay it or I do not play.” Efforts to regulate the sport had difficulty keeping up with its growth. (p. 375)
Eighteen Americans died playing football in 1905. From the White House Theodore Roosevelt thundered that if the colleges did not clean up football he would abolish it by executive order. (pp. 375-376)
The setting and circumstances are different, but the headlines look familiar. Perhaps our nostalgia for the past conveniently sidesteps the realities of human behavior in a competitive landscape. We will risk a lot to establish and maintain a winning tradition.
Today, intercollegiate athletics is a highly professional and sophisticated enterprise. The NCAA was established in 1906 as a response to this late 19th and early 20th century history of athletic competition fraught with moral and physical peril. Yet with all the policies and regulations, associations and conferences, rules and officials, why do we still find ourselves encountering the misjudgments of individuals who are determined to find a way to win no matter the cost? Perhaps the only thing that can overcome the shadow side of athletics is a determination to make choices consistent with our values, where athletes and coaches set their sights first on being students and educators.
I was deeply honored to participate in the activities related to the 50th anniversary of Ron Schipper’s arrival at Central College as a football coach. I never had the privilege of meeting him, so I have only been able to understand his legacy through the eyes of others. It was remarkable to hear so many stories from alumni in general and former football players in particular, as they recounted the experiences they had with Coach Schipper. I found it so interesting that the vast majority of the memories had little to do with wins and losses. The experiences these alumni valued most were times when he taught them lessons in attitude and character. He cared about much more than the game, though he was driven to win. Rather he seemed to understand the lifelong role he would play in shaping the lives of students, who also happened to be athletes.
Our President Emeritus, Ken Weller, also inspires me as I consider the importance of my role and responsibility in supporting our student-athletes and coaches. Ken’s national leadership in the development of the NCAA Division III Philosophy Statement continues to be referenced as an enormous contribution to the well-being of this division and its steadfast commitment to a set of values passed down from generation to generation. In Division III, athletics exist for the benefit of the participant, not the spectator. And, in this educational environment, importance is placed on learning, teamwork, sportsmanship and character.
These two shining examples of leadership in the NCAA remind us what matters most – the role intercollegiate athletics can play in strengthening an academic community. There are great benefits. History tells us that colleges and universities were first brought together in a spirit of cooperation around athletics to ensure that our educational ideals were upheld. Many opportunities for academic collaboration have followed. Institutions of higher education have also experienced a sense of unity and an expression of school spirit that has been a very healthy and enjoyable byproduct of our intercollegiate athletic programs. The experiential learning opportunities available to our athletes provide a means for developing a sense of interdependence as a team, self-motivation as a competitor, and resilience as failure only leads to greater success.
It’s time we call our society back from the celebration of winning at the cost of our values. Division III has the formula. Let’s spread the word.