Same old, same old

It’s a depressing day in higher education. The New York Times has a devastating story about the serial failures of the University of Virginia to pursue vigorously sexual assault cases on its campus. The problem is a national one – UNC’s own failures in this area have been well-documented.

I just felt compelled to mention that.

Yesterday, I received via email the “Michigan Today” newsletter. It included a link to an interesting episode in university history. In 1925, Neil Staebler, then a student in Ann Arbor, was the editor of a gadfly student publication called Chimes, which was to fold a year later. The most powerful man on campus in 1925 was the already legendary Fielding Yost, long-time football coach and athletics czar at UM. Michigan was a powerhouse in football in those days. So much so that Yost and his backers were clamoring to build a new stadium that could accommodate up to 100,000 fans.

Staebler, alongside the sociologist Robert Angell, was adamantly opposed to the proposed stadium and, more generally, to the insidious influence of football on campus life. The arguments deployed on either side of the debate are familiar to anyone paying attention to NCAA-related controversies in 2014.

When Yost was making his case for the new stadium, he promised that its benefits would reach far beyond football. The new revenues generated by football would pay for a brand new sporting complex to accommodate other varsity and intramural sports. So, even in 1925, big time college football sold itself as a beneficent force in campus life and was already seeking to create a kind of dependency that would link its fate to athletics more generally.

In making his case for a new stadium:

“…Yost went into overdrive. All that spring and summer he gave speeches from Monroe to Marquette to Kalamazoo, to Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Chambers of Commerce. On the faculty there might be snooty naysayers, but among outstate alumni and just plain fans, he had thousands of allies. Michigan was behind in the stadium race. The state had to compete.”

The trope that anyone who criticizes big-time athletics is elitist and anti-athlete is, this story makes clear, far from a new one, as is the claim that schools in an arms race cannot afford to unilaterally disarm.

When Staebler and Angell (then a 25-year old professor and former sports editor of the Michigan Daily) took on football, they knew they would be demonized. After Angell called for the abolition of intercollegiate athletics, he was deemed “inhuman, devoid of emotion, incapable of feeling thrills and disgustingly academic.”

Writing for Gaebler’s publication, Angell framed the mission of the university in basic terms:

“At Ann Arbor is an institution called a University. What does this mean? It means first and foremost that here is a social structure dedicated to the improvement of human life through the acquisition of knowledge.”

So, the question, in his mind, was whether big time football furthered that fundamental mission. His answer – clearly not.  Football, he argued, had an outsized and unhealthy impact on the intellectual and moral imagination of Michigan’s students. And as for the athletes themselves: “Angell said, only a few did more in class than maintain their eligibility. Nearly all their time and energy went to the sport. ‘Their diplomas cover a multitude of intellectual sins.'”

Angell’s problem wasn’t with football itself, but what it had become at Michigan:

“I enjoy watching a football game almost as much as the next man,” he said. “Time was when I enjoyed it more. But that does not alter the unmistakable fact that students could still be allowed this pleasure without the contests becoming a great public spectacle. That is what turns a fine thing into a degenerating one. The university has certainly no duty to furnish public entertainment to its own detriment.”

Gaebler’s and Angell’s adversaries rehearsed a by-now familiar set of arguments. Football benefited athletes of all stripes at Michigan, including the former tennis player, Angell. Football was here to stay, so opposing it was to do little more than tilt at windmills. Building a bigger stadium would not alter the fundamental purpose of the enterprise, only generate more income and meet popular demand.  In sum, if you aren’t going to get rid of football, you might as well get behind it becoming as big as possible.

In the midst of this fight, a university committee issued a long-awaited report on the impact of athletics on campus life. The report concluded that:

Michigan should dampen the fierce emphasis on winning; reduce the imbalance between intercollegiate and intramural sports; and put more faculty on the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics. The University was “an institution of higher learning, not a purveyor of popular entertainment,” the committee said. “Intercollegiate athletics seem to have grown out of all proportion to the importance of the purposes which they serve.”

The response – naturally, it was to push ahead with the new stadium, a 72,000-seater that opened in 1927.

Twas ever thus.

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