Progressivism That's Cloaked in Pigskin

Article excerpt

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

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. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness -- especially gymnastics -- for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity -- mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

The story is told well in "The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education's Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football" (University Press of Kansas) by Brian M. Ingrassia, a Middle Tennessee State University historian. 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. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel "The Red Badge of Courage" said: "Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field."

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. …