Education Encyclopedia - » Education Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE) » College Athletics - History Of Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities, Academic Support Systems For Athletes - THE ROLE AND SCOPE OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS IN U.S. COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

College Athletics - History Of Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities

sports intercollegiate university football

Intercollegiate athletics in the United States has come to be regarded as higher education's "peculiar institution." This somewhat critical characterization results from the fact that although intercollegiate athletics is seldom listed as part of the central mission of a college or university, athletics have come to command inordinate visibility, resources, influence, and attention both inside and outside many campuses. Analyzing, explaining, and dealing with this disparity between official philosophy and actual practice presents a complex analytic task. To truly understand the present situation requires a reconstruction of college athletics' unique historical evolution.

Visitors to an American campus cannot help but be struck by the physical presence of the intercollegiate athletics enterprise. In the twenty-first century, it is not unusual for a major university campus to contain both a football stadium that seats 70,000 spectators and a basketball arena that accommodates audiences of 20,000. In the year 2000 many universities had annual operating budgets for athletics ranging between $30 million and $60 million. The success and pervasiveness of college sports described was not inevitable, but is the result of particular innovations and episodes over the past 150 years.

The Violent Birth of Intercollegiate Sports

Prior to 1850 intercollegiate sports played a marginal role in collegiate life. If there was a need for physical activity in the student regimen, college presidents and deans thought manual labor in the form of farming or clearing boulders from college lands fit the bill perfectly. Though admittedly both economical and expedient, students, not surprisingly, remained unconvinced that this was the type of physical release that their souls craved. Instead, collegiate student bodies increasingly devised their own elaborate (and often brutal) intramural contests known as "class rushes." These "rushes" usually involved some variation of football, which actually provided a pretext for a ritualistic and violent hazing of the incoming freshman by the sophomore class.

College officials struggled to curb these violent student traditions, but intramural sports persisted within the campus and eventually took a decisive turn toward sanctioned and refereed events in which a team representing one institution competed against its counterpart from another. Despite the increase in organization, administrators initially were not eager, generally speaking, to embrace such contests that they viewed as inappropriate distractions from serious scholarly work. Indicative of the administrative outrage at such elaborate contests was the telegram that the president of Cornell sent to officials at the University of Michigan in 1873 when he learned that student teams from the two institutions were planning to meet in Cleveland for a football game: "I will not permit thirty men to travel four hundred miles merely to agitate a bag of wind" (Rudolph, p. 374–375).

Whether or not Cornell's president won this particular battle, he and college presidents elsewhere lost the war of curbing intercollegiate athletic contests. With or without administrative blessings, college students formed athletic associations that included mechanisms for raising money, charging fees, sponsoring events, and selling tickets. And, by the 1890s, at many colleges, alumni groups joined with the student organizations to create formidable programs over which the college presidents and faculty exercised relatively little control.

Though college athletics would quickly be dominated by certain sports and by powerful institutions, the outstanding feature of college athletics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was its pervasiveness and diversity across American institutions. Although the oldest and largest institutions–Harvard and Yale–quickly gained the most attention in newspaper coverage and provided the largest athletic budgets, numerous other campuses made significant contributions as well. For instance, Springfield College in western Massachusetts, originally known as the International YMCA Training School, was where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. Nearby, Amherst College initiated varsity baseball and incorporated calisthenics and physical fitness into the collegiate curriculum. By 1900 the popularity of collegiate sports was reflected by its adoption in even all-girls schools. Wellesley College, for example, acquired renown for having developed a distinctively female approach to such sports as crew, basketball, and physical fitness. Other examples of innovations in American college sports before the turn of the twentieth century include:

  • First intercollegiate crew regatta (Harvard vs. Yale): 1852
  • First intercollegiate baseball game (Williams vs. Amherst): 1859
  • First intercollegiate football association (Harvard-Yale-Princeton): 1872
  • First intercollegiate track and field association (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics of America, or IC4A): 1875
  • First intercollegiate tennis match: 1883
  • First intercollegiate ice hockey game (Harvard vs. Brown): 1895
  • First intercollegiate gymnastics competition: 1899

The Maturing of a Collegiate Way of Life

As American higher education itself was largely nurtured in the Northeast, likewise in sports, this region also led the way in developing the intercollegiate sports that now seem so familiar. Heading into a new century, Yale dominated football and also came to be known as the "cradle of coaches" as it spread the Yale football gospel of strategy and sportsmanship across the nation. By 1910 Harvard obtained the national championship in football and asserted itself in numerous other sports. Harvard would also set the pace in terms of spectator facilities with the construction, in 1904, of Soldiers' Field–considered the finest, largest example of reinforced concrete architecture in the period. This regional predilection for architectural and spectator expansion continued when the Yale Bowl opened in 1914 with a grand design and a seating capacity of more than 70,000.

Although the eastern seaboard colleges initiated college sports, their models and lessons soon were emulated in regions across the country. In the mid-nineteenth century, faculty representatives from Midwestern universities formed the Western Conference–a formal group popularly known then and now as the Big Ten Conference. Within that conference, the universities of Michigan and Chicago set the pace with spectator appeal and winning teams.

The young University of Chicago was especially important as a leader in the structure and control of a high powered varsity sports program. Whereas many presidents had resisted and resented the ascent of intercollegiate athletics, the University of Chicago's administration embraced college sports. Chicago's young, brash president, William Rainey Harper, saw the athletic contests as an opportunity to connect the campus to the greater community and thereby generate goodwill, revenue, and attention for his model institution. The creation of a large stadium combined with a mass marketing effort that succeeded in generating popular appeal and large ticket sales. Harper found the ideal partner to help him carry out his brave new vision of commercialized collegiate athletics in Amos Alonzo Stagg. As coach and athletic director, Stagg, a Yale graduate and storied football hero, oversaw the University of Chicago's athletic department for forty years.

The importance of Stagg's tenure in athletics at Chicago lies in the fact that he (with the president and board's support) created a structure that gave substantial autonomy and influence to the athletic department within the normally complex and Byzantine university administrative structure. Though holding faculty status, Stagg's program budget was exempted from conventional bureaucratic procedures. He reported directly to the president and the board of trustees, with no oversight from academic deans or faculty budget committees. In addition, Stagg generated extra income for himself and his program by being allowed to use the university facilities to sponsor promotional events, host state high school track meets, and hold instructional camps. Such a situation made Stagg and his department the envy of other athletic leaders who in turn pushed their own institutions to adopt similar procedures in order to create the winning programs that alumni and donors demanded.

New England colleges also played a crucial role in the evolution of administration and control of college sports. Harvard's hiring of Bill Reid as a well-paid, full-time football coach in 1901 represented a major escalation of professionalizing college coaches. After Reid's hiring, coaches across the country realized that if they won they too could demand the high salary and substantial benefits enjoyed by Harvard's head coach. During his long tenure at Yale as athletic director, Walter Camp seemingly perfected the financial and political control of an entire athletic program with little accountability to students, faculty, or academic administration. Camp also used his Yale position as the base from which to create an enterprising network of syndicated newspaper columns, annual guides, endorsements, and other lucrative, influential college sports publications.

The turn of the century did not mark simply heady days for the burgeoning athletic programs. Many students and some alumni resented that the emerging organizational scheme tended to give inordinate and enduring support to a few selected spectator (and hence revenue-generating) sports–namely, football–with relatively few resources being dedicated to numerous other varsity squads. Additionally, the power and popularity of intercollegiate athletics led directly to conspicuous abuse. Even at this early juncture, a lack of regulation and fair play both on and off the field left college athletics indelibly marked by corruption and a reputation that has plagued "big-time" college sports to this day. More significantly, as the games "professionalized," brutality often increased. At times, it seemed that the days of Roman crowds chanting for gladiatorial blood were returning.

At the turn of the century, the situation had deteriorated to the point that President Theodore Roosevelt summoned university presidents to the White House with an ultimatum that they eliminate brutality from the playing field or risk federal intervention. The violence did decrease, and the development of better protective equipment also aided in safeguarding the athletes, but the problems were far from solved. No standards were set in areas such as eligibility and scholarships, thereby blurring the line of definition for supposedly amateur contests between students. In an attempt to bring order to these increasingly popular competitions, the National Collegiate Athletic Association was formed in the early 1900s. This could only be considered a Pyrrhic victory, however, for the historic East Coast universities, which had the strongest athletic programs in the country, refused to cooperate and boycotted the organizational meeting with institutions from the Midwest and West. Consequently, intercollegiate athletics lacked any semblance of meaningful nation-wide coordination over the next half century.

Athletics Out West

As Frederick Jackson Turner postulated for the entire nation: Though born and raised in the East, Americans and their institutions are ultimately defined and refined in the West. Collegiate athletics certainly followed Turner's thesis as the rise of spectator and student interest in college sports spread to the Pacific Coast. Between World War I and World War II the geographical balance of power in dominance of college sports shifted. The June 1937 issue of Life magazine devoted to "going to college in America" included a feature article titled, "Sports Records Move West." The emergence of top caliber intercollegiate teams in the Midwest and on the Pacific Coast "left Eastern collegians clinging to a steadily dwindling share of athletic supremacy." This led the editors to observe that: "In the past two decades, athletic reputation has largely moved West and South" (Life, p. 72–73).

Increasingly, college sports became a symbolic litmus test of regional and/or ethnic esteem and assimilation. For example, in the 1920s in South Bend, Indiana, the University of Notre Dame gained national visibility by becoming a rallying point for American Catholic pride and affiliation. Its victories over established East Coast football teams and national symbols such as West Point provided American Catholics with a sense of accomplishment and belonging. This trend continued well into the 1960s, for example, when African Americans used sports to break color barriers, particularly in southern universities. The national basketball championship won by Texas Western in 1966 with an all-black starting five–over the perennially powerful University of Kentucky and its all-white squad–marked an important shift in recruitment and acceptance of black players.

Various regions of the country have also rallied around school sports programs. Since 1926 the annual intersectional contests between Notre Dame and the University of Southern California regularly attracted crowds of over 100,000, whether played in Los Angeles or Chicago, and provided victorious regions the enjoyment of martial bragging rights without the sacrifice of actual military battle. Starting in 1946 the annual New Year's Day Rose Bowl Game matched the champion of the Midwest's Big Ten Conference against the championship team from the Pacific Coast Conference–and thus provided victorious regions the enjoyment of martial bragging rights without the sacrifice of actual military battle. Tiny schools and forgotten regions could gain instant, if fleeting, national attention by successfully competing with national powers, such as when unheralded Centre College of Kentucky gained national headlines in the 1920s for spirited play–and an eventual victory–over Harvard's football squad in 1921. Finally, as with anything that has mass appeal, politicians endeared themselves to the electorate by associating with and supporting local schools. Perhaps the grandest example of such activities occurred when Huey Long, the indefatigable governor of Louisiana, pronounced in 1928 that Louisiana State University was the "People's University," and called on the people of the state to share in its wealth of championship teams and its magnificent football stadium.

From Chaos to Concern

Colleges and universities paid a dear price for the popularity of intercollegiate athletics. The strong, pervasive, and enduring appeal of varsity teams, combined with the quest by alumni, local boosters, and college officials for championship squads, meant that even by the 1920s the activities associated with recruiting and compensating college student athletes were largely unregulated chaos. This was most dramatically exposed in 1929 when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released its comprehensive study American College Athletics, written by Howard Savage. According to this report, meaningful reform in American collegiate sports could take place only if campus presidents replaced the "downtown crowd," comprising a city's businessmen, alumni boosters, and commercial interests, as the source of leadership and responsibility. The initial response of university presidents was outrage and denial, but when the Carnegie Foundation stood by its allegations and released more documentation, academic leaders showed some public signs of interest in reform. Shoring up conferences by adding regulations and a commissioner was one gesture. Ironically, conference reforms were often counterproductive because they merely gave official approval to such practices as training tables that provided college players with free meals daily, along with subsidies for athletes, and alliances with booster clubs that previously had been cited as the problems of unregulated college sports.

Immediately after World War II, the unresolved excesses of intercollegiate athletics gained unprecedented publicity. Returning armed-service veterans swelled the ranks of varsity athletics squads. Many presidents and athletic directors placed no restrictions on the number of athletic scholarships allowed, and some football squads included three hundred players for opening practice, with more than one hundred athletes on scholarship. Excesses were accompanied by illegalities. Between 1948 and 1952 exposés and successful prosecutions of student-athletes, coaches, and alumni boosters involved in point-shaving schemes and gambling cartels led to congressional hearings and a call for nationwide oversight by academic leaders. When organizations led by college presidents, such as the American Council on Education, failed to present a coherent plan, regulatory power was given to the National Collegiate Athletics Association–an organization whose primary charge had previously been to simply promote championship tournaments. Meanwhile, at the conference level, presidents and faculty delegates attempted to introduce standards of student conduct and eligibility into policies and practices. If New England colleges had been pioneers in the creation and expansion of college sports in the first half of the century, after World War II they again assumed a leadership role in the reform and removal of excess. Most noticeable were the codes and restraints demonstrated by the "Little Three"–Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. In 1956 the formal creation of the Ivy Group (League) provided a model of presidential and faculty oversight of college sports.

The economics of intercollegiate athletics was slowly but persistently altered in the 1950s due to the simultaneous appearance of two phenomena: (1) professional sports teams in football and basketball, and (2) the availability of radio and television for live broadcasts of sporting events. All college teams, ranging from the established powerful university squads to the small college teams, feared that the popularity of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association would cause declining attendance at college games. Small college squads faced a second threat: national and regional broadcasts of a few selected "big-time" college games prompted many long-time fans to stay at home rather than buy a stadium ticket on Saturday afternoons. The result was a shake-out in college sports programs over two decades in which a substantial number of institutions opted, or were financially forced, to drop football.

College Sports in the Age of Aquarius

In the late 1960s shifting cultural values forced widespread changes in sports policies and emphases. As other athletes demanded equality, granting athletic scholarships ceased to be confined to a handful of traditional revenue sports–namely, football and basketball. By 1970 athletic grants-in-aid were increasingly prevalent for such sports as track, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling, baseball, and swimming. Expanding the excellence and the number of squads tended to swell athletic department operating expenses, but the small fan base of these sports failed to cover the increased costs. Consequently, institutes of higher learning faced growing philosophical and economic problems within their athletic programs. The financial brinkmanship would be subjected to even greater–and unexpected–stress in the 1970s.

Much more vocally and powerfully than "minor" sports athletes, females increasingly sought equal treatment from institutions in regards to athletics. Their actions would lead to a dramatic change in intercollegiate sports: the inclusion of women as bona fide participants in varsity athletics. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), created in the 1950s, led the way in increasing financial support of female athletic programs and scholarships for women. This too placed institutions and athletic departments in dire financial straits, for female sports did not generate enough fan interest to be self-supporting. This largely became a moot point in 1972, however, due to the landmark Title IX legislation that prohibited, with some exceptions, discrimination by gender in provision of educational programs. Consequently, college athletics in many ways moved from the playing fields to the court rooms as individuals challenged institutional compliance with this federal mandate. Between 1972 and 1990 colleges and courts groped for a clear interpretation of precisely what was intended and required in terms of social justice and institutional compliance for women as student-athletes. In 1997 the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings requiring Brown University to comply with Title IX guidelines on proportionality.

Originally, a school could demonstrate compliance in athletics in one of four ways: have a proportional number of male and female participants; have a proportional relationship between female athletes and female students; demonstrate increasing opportunity for females to participate in athletics; or show that female participation in athletics matched their interest and ability to participate. However, most subsequent court rulings have demanded that the most stringent of the four tests be met, insisting that schools have a proportional number of participants in men's and women's athletics and thereby a proportional number of scholarships for each gender. This rigorous interpretation of directives for compliance with Title IX legislation has proven difficult for institutions due to the disparity of income and male and female sports generate. For instance, many athletic departments rely on football to fund their entire operating budgets, but fielding a football team requires providing scholarships for more than sixty male students. Therefore, under Title IX directives, more than sixty female students must also be given athletic scholarships, which then requires athletic departments to create enough female sports to field sixty participants with the knowledge that these activities will not garner enough fan support to pay for their existence. Consequently, athletic directors nationwide have eliminated many non-revenue male sports, with the claim that athletics programs can no longer afford to fund them. The corollary is that athletic directors have viable alternatives to eliminating men's teams such as wrestling and swimming. The net result of these conflicting interpretations is that many intercollegiate athletics programs are held in suspense on their character and composition. Though difficult, failure to comply with Title IX directives can bring harsh and far-reaching repercussions; therefore academic leaders and athletic directors continue to review their intercollegiate athletic enterprise to ensure that women are equally represented.

Competing in a Brave New Century of Sport

The most conspicuous example of the problems of success and popularity that faced intercollegiate athletics in the late twentieth century can be seen in the 1991 and 2001 reform reports of the Knight Foundation Commission on the Future of Intercollegiate Athletics. The absence of a government agency, combined with the limits of such voluntary associations as the National Collegiate Athletic Association to bring integrity to the governance of college sports, has prompted foundations to take the lead in promoting public discussion of the issues and problems. In 1991 the Knight Foundation panel, dominated by university presidents along with some executives and legislators, proposed that strong presidential involvement was the key to protecting the interests of student-athletes. A decade later, the emphasis was on cost containment as the essential ingredient in curbing the commercialism of intercollegiate sports. Whether or not such reforms have a widespread and enduring influence, intercollegiate athletics persist, for better or worse (or both), as a distinctive part of American higher education.

By the 1990s discussions about student-athletes had shifted from the question, "Are college athletics being paid?" to the proposition, "How much should college athletes be paid?" Such debates followed logically from research by economists who concluded that the National Collegiate Athletic Association had become a highly lucrative cartel, and that athletes participating in big-time programs were, in essence, often being exploited by their institutions and associations as "unpaid professionals." Furthermore, coaches in high profile sports enhanced their stature as celebrities rather than as educators, complete with endorsements and special contracts to supplement their base salaries. To increase the seriousness of these concerns, athletic programs at all institutions, including the most conspicuous ones, faced a paradox of prosperity: despite unprecedented revenues, most teams and programs were not financially self-supporting. Even at the Division IA level of NCAA competition, future funding of intercollegiate athletics faced a situation of dubious fiscal fitness.

The conventional wisdom was that overemphasis on intercollegiate athletics was most prevalent in the relatively small number of big-time programs at large universities. Yet significant, systematic research sponsored by the Mellon Foundation in 2000 suggested otherwise. William G. Bowen and James Shulman's study, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, complicated the profile with their finding that even at–or, perhaps, especially at–academically selective and relatively small-sized colleges and universities, the demands on student-athletes' time were substantial. Furthermore, at these institutions, usually regarded as apart from athletic excess, commitment to strong varsity sports programs tended to exert inordinate influence on such decisions as admissions and allocation of campus resources. Academic and public concern over the proper place of athletics in American colleges and universities remained problematic at most institutions at the start of the twenty-first century.


ATWELL, ROBERT H.; GRIMES, BRUCE; and LOPIANO, DONNA A. 1980. The Money Game: Financing Collegiate Athletics. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

FLEISHER, ARTHUR A., III; GOFF, BRIAN L.; and TOLLISON, ROBERT D. 1991. The National Collegiate Athletic Association: A Study in Cartel Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LAWRENCE, PAUL R. 1987. Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Business of College Football. New York:Praeger.

LESTER, ROBIN. 1995. Stagg's University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

MICHENER, JAMES. 1976. Sports in America. New York: Random House.

ORIARD, MICHAEL. 1993. Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

RUDOLPH, FREDERICK. 1962. "The Rise of Football." In The American College and University: A History. New York: Knopf.

SHULMAN, JAMES L., and BOWEN, WILLIAM G. 2000. The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

SMITH, RONALD. 1988. Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SPERBER, MURRAY. 1990. College Sports, Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. The University. New York: Henry Holt.

SPERBER, MURRAY. 1999. Onward to Victory: The Crises That Shaped College Sports. New York: Henry Holt.

"Sports Records Move West." 1937. Life June 7, 72–73.

THELIN, JOHN R. 1994. Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

ZIMBALIST, ANDREW. 1999. Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.



College Athletics - Academic Support Systems For Athletes [next]

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

almost 3 years ago

hey just wanted to say that i think college should get paid

Vote down Vote up

over 4 years ago

Yale dominated football game and also came to be known as the "cradle of coaches" as it spread the Yale football gospel of strategy and sportsmanship across the nation.
that's really awesome :)

Vote down Vote up

about 3 years ago

why this so long!?!?!?!?

Vote down Vote up

almost 3 years ago

why did they not put this first on their list what happened???

Vote down Vote up

over 4 years ago

By the 1990s discussions about student-athletes had shifted from the question, "Are college athletics being paid?" to the proposition, "How much should college athletes be paid?"

Vote down Vote up

over 4 years ago

"college sports became a symbolic litmus test of regional and/or ethnic esteem and assimilation" i know some people who worship sports, that's true !

Vote down Vote up

almost 11 years ago

Has there ever been two schools who have played in the football national title game and the played in the national chamionship game in basketball in the same year?? For example Florida and Ohio State could possibly accomplish this if they both make the finals.

Vote down Vote up

over 1 year ago

Correction: Yale may have been known as the "Cradle of Coaches" pre 1900s, but as of February 21st 2012, Miami of Ohio has officially been trademarked as the "Cradle of Coaches".