Athletics in American Colleges

By Cowley, W. H. | Journal of Higher Education, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Athletics in American Colleges


Cowley, W. H., Journal of Higher Education


The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has recently published, as Bulletin Number Twenty-three, its third study dealing with the subject of athletics. The first described athletic sports at some twenty American colleges and universities and was published as part of the Twentieth Annual Report of the Foundation in 1925. The second, Bulletin Number Eighteen, issued in 1927, dealt with games and sports at British schools and universities. Both these previous investigations were introductions to the present extensive study carried out by Dr. Howard J. Savage, member of the staff of the Carnegie Foundation.

Dr. Savage's report is so voluminous that the editors of this Journal feel that a summary of its contents may make for a more widespread knowledge of the investigator's findings. Few college administrators and teachers have ready access to the study, and an even smaller number have the leisure at their disposal to give it the attention and the thought it deserves. Newspaper reports have unfortunately been too brief to be of much value, and, moreover, they have tended to be more sensational than inclusive. They have given the general reader an inadequate picture of what the Foundation and its investigators have sought to accomplish. The following summary is submitted to the college and university public that there may be a wider understanding of the objectives and results of several years of work on the part of the Foundation.

Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, president of the Carnegie Foundation, introduces the report with a long Preface which seeks to put the investigation in perspective. He observes that the investigators sought to answer two fundamental questions: "What relation has this astonishing athletic display to the work of an intellectual agency like a university?" and "How do students, devoted to study, find either the time or the money to stage so costly a performance?" Commenting on the data collected to answer these questions, Dr. Pritchett makes the following general observation which sums up what appears to him to be the most important problem involved. "The question is whether an institution in the social order whose primary purpose is the development of the intellectual life can at the same time serve as an agency to promote business, industry, journalism, salesmanship, and organized athletics on an extensive commercial basis. The question is not so much whether athletics in their present form should be fostered by the university, but how fully can a university that fosters professional athletics discharge its primary function. . . . How far can an agency, whose function is intellectual, go in the development of other causes without danger to its primary purpose? Can a university teach equally well philosophy and salesmanship? Can it both sponsor genuine education and at the same time train raw recruits for minor vocations? Can it concentrate its attention on securing teams that win, without impairing the sincerity and vigor of its intellectual purpose?"

The unfavorable results of athletic development upon students he considers to be the nine following:

1. College athletics have a deleterious effect upon secondary schools.

2. College athletics are too absorbing to allow the athlete really to study.

3. College athletes are given a distorted sense of social values.

4. Coaches have an undesirable cultural influence upon their charges.

5. Competition produces a system of recruiting and subsidizing which "is demoralizing and corrupt."

6. Alumni devices for recruiting winning teams "constitutes the most disgraceful phase of recent intercollegiate athletics."

7. College athletics do not contribute appreciably to the health program of colleges.

8. "The strict organization and the tendency to commercialize has taken the joy out of the game."

9. "The blaze of publicity in which the college athlete lives is a demoralizing influence for the boy himself and no less so for his college. …

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