Will, George F, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority -- clergy and other professionals.
The collective activity of team sports came after a great collective exertion, the Civil War, and two great social changes -- urbanization and industrialization. Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox.
For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers' venues had been battlefields. Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in "the moral equivalent of war."
Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production.
College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism in two ways: It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities into something progressivism desired but the public found alien.
Replicating industrialism's division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences -- economics, sociology, political science -- that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses. …