When you contemplate the upcoming college football season, because I know you do, what schools are on your mind? Perhaps it is the notoriously ferocious athletes at Princeton? Maybe ‘tis the physically imposing young men of Yale? Ah, or by chance you appreciate the absolute dominance of the University of Chicago?
Right. Of course not.
I find this amusing. Ironic, in the Alanis Morissette usage of the word.
You probably think of places like Auburn, USC, or maybe “the” Ohio State. You are wondering, or rooting for, who will win the Florida vs. Florida State game, or Texas vs. Oklahoma. You think of the SEC or Big 10. The PAC 12 or ACC. Do you ever consider the Ivy League? No? Let us consider it now.
Once upon a time America was a relatively new political institution consisting of mostly English expatriates and the ones with money wanted their kids to go hang out with other children of rich English expats. So they sent them to colleges. Places like Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Brown. There these young boys had parties, rioted over bad cafeteria food, memorized Latin, and had rituals where they beat each other up en masse. Now there were some exceptions. Some young men went to college because they were both rich and also nerds. These are the ones who read philosophy and were named Franklin Roosevelt. But make no mistake, FDR was the exception, most of them were more like Teddy. This was way before US News and World Report rankings or even before the BCS. Back then college rankings looked more like a pedigree chart and banking network. Back then college kids wore ties. On purpose.
But most schools, at least once a year, took off those ties, usually their shirts too, and had giant shoving matches or competitions. They varied from place to place but it was usually something like Juniors versus Sophomores trying to move a gigantic leather ball from one end of a courtyard to the other. Or a tug of war. Or wrestling. It was a competition to win a bowl, or a jug, or bragging rights. Important stuff.
Over across the pond, where these boy’s granddaddies came from, school boys were doing similar sorts of things. Lots of kicking balls and roughhousing and being rich. At one school, called the Rugby School, they started picking up the ball rather than kicking it. The game started to catch on. This was about the year 1827. Back in 1827, England, or rather the fathers of rich English school boys, had pretty much colonized most of the globe. This colonization did include America at one time, but there was revolution and all that mess, so by 1827 when restless rich English kids graduated University, or when they needed to gain some legitimacy, they joined the Royal army and went and played their roughhousing games in places like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The boys at Harvard and Yale were watching their cousins but were soon distracted when some clowns attacked Fort Sumter. That distraction lasted till 1865.
Once the American Civil War was over the young rich kids from up north had to go back to school. The rich kids from the south weren’t rich anymore and the poor northern kids stayed in the army. Funny thing is that once boys have been to war, or even if they were too young to fight while a war was going on, they get extra restless if then sent to sit in a classroom. Having good memories these young students recalled those games their English cousins were playing and decided to follow suit. This was pretty normal for them, after all the whole college thing itself was a bit of an imitation game. Harvard is built in a place they called Cambridge and Princeton had always been trying to be Oxford.
Anywhose, on November 6th 1869, Princeton visited the campus of their divorced sibling Rutgers and played a game of football. They did indeed call the game football, it was mostly kicking, and Rutgers won 6-4. Seven days later Rutgers sauntered on over to Princeton for a re-match. Playing on their own turf meant they got to propose their own rules, one of which allowed for a player to catch a kicked ball mid-air. Princeton won 8-0. Crafty buggers.
Not too far away Harvard, like any rich kid who notices what the Joneses are doing, wanted in on the action. In May of 1874 they invited McGill to come down to Cambridge for a two game series. On the first day they played football with a round ball like they did in New Jersey. Harvard won 3-0. The next day McGill, being good Canadians who never poured any tea in a harbor, insisted that day’s game be played more like the updated version the English rugby boys were playing. It had an oblong ball and running. The game ended in a tie but the Boston boys were hooked. Later that very same year, 1874, 2,000 people showed up to watch Harvard win the rematch 3 tries to 0.
These rich college kids were on to something.
At this time all of America was getting “on to something”. Industrialization was becoming a thing, Manifest Destiny was all the rage, and more rich white people were sending their boys off to college to be with other rich white boys than ever before. Problem was back then telephones weren’t all that big and no one had televisions, so it was difficult for rich parents to keep in touch with their school boys and it was even tougher to make sure everyone else knew your kids were rich and important. Luckily one of the great ways to get rich back then was to own a newspaper. The internet hadn’t started the French Revolution yet and so the Bourgeoisie New York Times was free to cover the activities of rich college kids like the internet would a Kardashian.
The sports page had things like rowing, fencing, and equestrian events. Pretty soon, thanks to all our practice at Gettysburg, Andrew Carnegie, and the White Fleet, there were even more rich people than there used to be and the sports page was covering football games at places like the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, and Stanford. This football thing was getting big. So big in fact that by 1903 both Harvard and Yale broke ground on permanent stadiums just for this game of football. Harvard’s could seat 30,000 people, Yale’s could seat 70,000. Neither school even had 10,000 students. But people were paying attention to the few students there were at those places, and as is always the case with Kardashians, there were a lot of imitators or spin offs. Soon you had people tackling each other and taking duck lip selfies in places like Pittsburgh and Green Bay. Not necessarily at the schools in those places- just in those places. I mean, these people weren’t even in college let alone rich. Just common Etsy users. The nerve!
With the spreading popularity of the game and the historically consistent need of rich people to win, the line between student and athlete was quickly blurred. Schools that wanted to make money by filling stadiums-er- wanted their students to learn valuable life lessons through winning intercollegiate sporting events, started dabbling here and there in paying certain individuals with certain skills to come be a student for their school for a few games here and there. This ruffled feathers. Up until this point college was first and foremost, a place for sons of rich people to commune amongst themselves, with the occasional exception for an extra serious student. This whole football thing was trying to shift those exceptions from smart nerds, whom no one cared about, to poorer (not rich) athletic kids, whom the public loved. Something had to be done.
Luckily America was blessed at this time with a president who was also a Harvard alum, so he understood the importance of the situation. He was able to concoct some national crisis or concern about how many people died playing football in 1905 (19). Hadn’t the civil war taught us anything about the value of life? Doesn’t America know we need these kids alive as we ramp up for the first world war? I mean college is where the children of Vanderbilts and Kennedys hang out. Premature violent death is for poor people and immigrants, not Vanderbilts, unless of course they are an officer in a glorious world conflict in places like Cuba, so stay tuned, but for now, football must be regulated! The following year 62 colleges signed on as charter members of the NCAA, a loose organization organized to make sure poor people weren’t being paid to play rich people games, and that the game would be safer. Teddy was great at this sort of thing.
So the NCAA got to work protecting integrity and human life. Most of the schools, Like the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to make the game safer by making the playing field wider. The idea is that if there is more room to run away from someone you are less likely to get ran over by them. Makes sense. Other schools, named Harvard and Yale, wanted to make the game safer by making this new trick called the forward pass legal. The idea is that if you are allowed to throw the ball away when you are about to get trampled, you are less likely to get trampled.Makes sense. This passing the ball idea made even more sense to Harvard and Yale since they had just built their new huge stadiums out of concrete and all those seats might be easier to fill if there was a new trick to watch… and it was physically impossible to widen the field since they hadn’t left any spare room when they built the 50,000 seat concrete facility for student recreation. Fortunately for the Doug Fluties of the world the forward pass won the day. But let me get back to the wide field advocates at places like Penn.
While Harvard and Yale were the traditional homes of traditional rich people memorizing Latin and rioting over bad food, Penn was the traditional home of more practical press apprenticing Ben Franklin and P&L statement memorizing Joseph Wharton. Add in all the Keynesian economists over in Chicago and just plain nerds at that newfangled Cornell, and you have some relatively influential schools that were highly “invested” in winning football games. The NCAA, which more or less started as a meeting at the White House, settled on being mostly a club where schools could agree on rules like forward passes and flying wedges, and sort of skirted about the whole paying players and filling stadiums stuff so the grand settlement was that Pasadena California should build a big stadium not on any campus and host a “bowl game” every January. This may have been everyone’s undoing as no sooner did they start hosting this big game and writing about it in the Times, than schools like Washington State and Oregon were beating schools like Brown and Penn. It was just like Vogue putting Kim Kardashian on the cover; this was not in the original playbook. USC, Alabama, and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech? There is a “tech” in the name of the school for heaven’s sake. This desire to fill stadiums and win games got so carried away that in 1916, a full 54 years before USC’s famous game against all white Bama, Brown fielded a brown player named Fritz Pollard. Imagine how popular you would be as a black man with a German name in 1916 (just as an FYI the whole world was in a war against Germany in 1916). Meh, who cares when it comes to football right? Elihu Yale must have been rolling over in his grave. But not everyone was ready to just roll over. Some folks were serious about school and integrity, and rich white boys- I mean education.
So along comes this guy Robert Hutchins. He was one of those poor white nerds that Yale decided to be nice to back in the day. Huge mistake. First Yale let him in, then he becomes the Dean of the law school, and next thing ya know, bam, he’s the president of the University of Chicago. Ya see, when you let a non-rich nerd take over the show, they turn it into a nerd show. Poor Chicago. In 1935 a Chicago halfback won this fancy trophy they were giving to the best football player in the whole country called the “Heisman” (named after a guy who played football at both Brown and Penn). Four years later, this guy Hutchins CANCELS FOOTBALL! Ends it. Done. No more team. Nerd. Evil nerd. But what else was there to do? This game meant to keep roughhousing rich white boys busy had experienced some serious mission drift and was becoming-uh hum- common. The originally not rich nerd chose to cancel the fun so the school could stay nerdy, but the original club of rich white boys had another plan. They decided to take their ball and go home. In 1936 Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn, along with that new kid Cornell, unofficially banded together in what they were calling “an ivy league” and for the most part decided to just compete against each other and no longer mess with the rabble. This unofficial league had a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t give any athletic scholarships and would only consider one’s actual scholarship (or pedigree) in deciding college admissions. This was a grand return to their educational roots and original scholastic ideals, though those ideals never really existed in the first place. Isn’t it ironic? Yeah, I really do think.
Perhaps some of you do not like Alanis Morrisette, or are not of my generation so you have no idea who that is (the Drake of the 90’s), and consequentially you think I am being unfair in my historical descriptions of the non-scholastic motives of these birthplaces of God’s great game. This might be the case. I was once an offensive lineman so I am not above playing dirty. But consider if you will the idea that before the 1920’s there were no real admissions requirements other than graduating high school, for one to be admitted to college. I mean, way back when colleges started there wasn’t even such thing as a high school. There was only money. But in the 20’s a lot more people started enrolling in colleges and not just more people, but different kinds of people. Some of these people were burly non book reading types who were being paid to play football at Penn, but those guys were asked (paid) to come, and after all, there are only so many players on a football team. No one really cared. But there were also these non–rich only semi-white guys who enrolled in huge numbers called Jews. They hadn’t exactly been invited. Colleges saw this as a problem and thankfully for them they had almost 200 years of previous practice as a coalition of rich white guys and the occasional nerd to devise such things as “geographical balance” and “extracurricular considerations.” These were more or less quotas. In many cases, they were actual quotas.In the 1920’s places like Columbia (in this case Columbia specifically) upon realizing they had become 40% Jewish enacted these extra admissions considerations and successfully got that Jewish percentage down to 20% within two years. Now mind you this is the same Columbia that beat Stanford for the national title in the 1933 Rose Bowl. Go Lions!
New York was not the only place struggling with an influx of non-rich semi-white students. Consider this official statement from Harvard in 1922: “The great increase which has recently taken place in the number of students at Harvard College, as at the other colleges, has brought up forcibly the problem of the limitation of enrollment.
We have not at present sufficient classrooms or dormitories, to take care of any further large increase. This problem is really a group of problems, all difficult, and most of them needing for their settlement more facts than we now have. Before a general policy can be formulated on this great question it must engage the attention of the Governing Board and the Faculties and it is likely to be discussed by alumni and undergraduates.
It is natural that with a widespread discussion of this sort going on there should be talk about the proportion of Jews at the college. At present the whole problem of limitation of enrollment is in the stage of general discussion and it may remain in that stage for a considerable time.”
It was almost like the game was getting dangerous and Harvard found themselves unable to widen the field and instead chose to pass. They, and the other bastions of college football, were in danger of being trampled and unfortunately US News & World Report wouldn’t start publishing college rankings till 1983 so they were still dependent on pedigrees and bank accounts to decide which schools were best. In fact, these were such dangerous times that it was beginning to be hard to know what exactly was meant by best and how it should be measured. So Chicago quit, the Ivies formed a league, and Southern Methodist University eventually got the death penalty.
This all matters because I recently purchased this special eye black that comes in the colors of the university that employs me. I care about the intellectual development of my children and as a responsible parent I intend to decorate them in collegiate regalia when we go to the games starting this fall. It matters because we have recently learned that football teams in Illinois outrank the college president and that in North Carolina football players can get grades in a whole course of classes while the professor is away on sabbatical. These are great schools. I know this because both the BCS and a magazine tell me so. I have been to a great school and consequentially, and I write this with no irony, I can proudly pronounce the name Chris Fuamatu Ma’afala, with no help and ignore the red Microsoft squiggly lines with confidence. I am confident in my education.
I was recently reading Walter Camp’s suggestions on how to train a top notch defensive end. His instructions included rowing and eating toast. Walter should not be ignored because he is who created Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, and Bill Belichick. I may even give old Walter Camp credit for Joe Montana, Joe Brown, Joe Paterno, and Joe Theismann. Yup, all of them. As I peek at ESPN.com while at my desk, listen to Jim Rome during my commute, or watch Sports Center while doing whatever verb describes what you do on an elliptical (ellipticate?) I think of Walter Camp.
And Walter went to Yale.