The University of Virginia Basketball Team, 1914. Holsinger Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Turf War

A History of College Sports

On this episode, Brian, Peter, and Ed unpack the origins of college sports and the ways universities originally justified athletics on campus. From the first collegiate PHYS ED program at Amherst College to the little-known story about the integration of the University of Alabama’s football team – the hosts discover why college sports even exist in the first place.

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This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences.

PETER: This is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. In the wake of the scandal at Penn State University, a special investigation, known as the Freeh Report, criticized the disproportionate role of sports in campus life. There is, it reads, an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the university’s reputation as a progressive institution.

PETER: Now, this is hardly the first time we’ve heard this sort of concern. And so to mark the opening of March Madness, college basketball’s championship tournament, we’re looking back at the long and sometimes difficult relationship between universities and campus athletics. From early campus riots to team names, women’s sports, and yeah, the role of money, we’re asking how schools have for more than a century now justified big time sports as part of the academic experience. That’s coming up on BackStory.

Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy.

BRIAN: OK, guys, it’s finally here, March Madness, weeks of wall-to-wall college basketball coverage. I can’t get enough of it.

ED: Ah, yeah.

PETER: March Madness is America’s second-largest sporting event in terms of income, second only to the Super Bowl. And any time you get that much money and that much hype around college sports, people seem to start looking for the next big controversy.

MALE SPEAKER: First at 11:00– could a convicted Ponzi schemer bring down the University of Miami’s–

FEMALE SPEAKER: There are new revelations about wrongdoing within the Ohio State University football program under coach Jim Tressel. As you know–

MALE SPEAKER: The Seminoles have announced they will vacate 12 football victories and a 2007 men’s track national championship. The move is in response to an academic cheating scandal.

ED: And as much as this seems like a current-day problem– and it is– questions about the role of sports at universities have been around a long time.

BRIAN: We talked with reporter Ramona Martinez about one of the most drastic decisions in college sports history. It took place at the University of Chicago.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: And I should also say with full disclosure that I am an alumni of the University of Chicago, and therefore this history has a special place in my heart, which is why I was interested in the story originally.

BRIAN: Well, your account will have an asterisk after it, so.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: OK, sounds good.

BRIAN: But thanks for revealing that.

ED: Ramona says that in the 1890s, football was exploding across the country’s colleges. Harvard had a new team. Yale had a new team. But Chicago was a little behind the curve.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: The president of the university–

ED: William Rainey Harper.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: –decided that they needed to get on this football bandwagon.

ED: So he hires a coach, Alonzo Stagg.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: They decided that together they would create a team of, well, manly men. If you look over the dining hall today, which is in Bartlett Hall, which is the old gymnasium, you’ll see this mural painted of these sort of Romanesque men. And it says, in pursuit of manly sports, or something like that. So that was the sort of attitude that Stagg and Harper were taking towards pursuit of a great football team.

BRIAN: They came to be called the Chicago Maroons, and in less than a decade they became one of the best.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: In 1899, they were undefeated. They were one of the founding members of the Big 10 conference. They won two national titles, 10 conference titles. And one of their players was the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy.

ED: But this success was not to last. By the 1920s, elite schools around the country decided they were going to become more selective in their admission of students. And Chicago wanted to be on top academically, not just athletically, and so they too toughened their admissions standards.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: The academic standards of the school kept getting higher and higher until it was basically impossible for people hoping to just go to play football, who were riding on their athleticism, essentially, to get into Chicago.

BRIAN: And as you might have guessed, this had a huge effect on the quality of athletes at Chicago.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: Michigan, Notre Dame, all of those other big football schools in the Big 10, their admission standards weren’t as high, so they were able to attract talent that U Chicago just couldn’t.

BRIAN: And so the Chicago Maroons started to lose. In fact, they lost a lot, and people pretty quickly stopped caring about them.

ED: Around this time a new president comes to the university, Robert Hutchins, and Hutchins is sort of like the pastor in that movie Footloose. But whereas that pastor led a crusade against dancing, Hutchins led a crusade against sports.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: Hutchins once said that football has the same relation to education that bullfighting has to agriculture. And–


RAMONA MARTINEZ: Yeah, let’s just say he was the bookish type.

BRIAN: And so with a failing team, higher academic standards, and a president that couldn’t stand the game, the University of Chicago ended its once-proud football program. The team had gone from the penthouse to the outhouse of college football. And what’s really shocking is that the students– well, they were OK with the decision.

RAMONA MARTINEZ: One freshman player from the Maroons wrote President Hutchins after they made the decision to get rid of football. And he says, many of the players felt a distinct personal loss, but we agree with you that the first purpose of an educational institution is to education, with football of secondary importance. We, the players, are proud of you and of the University of Chicago.

PETER: Which makes you wonder why more schools haven’t followed Chicago’s lead. Why is it that athletics are still such an integral part of university life in America?


BRIAN: So today’s show, a history of college sports, stories about the ever-tense relationship between academics and athletics.


BRIAN: hosts, if we’re going to spend an hour on college sports, there are just a few things we should go over right off the bat. For one, college sports have not been around forever.

ED: And it seems like it, I know, but it’s true. Organized sports first make an appearance in my period, the 19th century, mainly in rowing, baseball, lacrosse, and football.

BRIAN: So Mr. 18th Century Guy, Peter, I imagine that running around chasing balls would have been a pretty vulgar departure from the pristine ivy-lined college life of your period. Young men studying Plato–

PETER: Oh, Brian.

BRIAN: –studying Latin–

PETER: Brian, Brian, cut it out. Look, college students in my century were just about as bad as they’ve ever been. It was more like all-out campus riots.

HELEN HOROWITZ: I need to convey how really serious these riots were. They were very serious and very dangerous.

PETER: This is Helen Horowitz, the author of Campus Life– Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the 18th Century to the Present.

HELEN HOROWITZ: In Princeton in 1800, when three students were suspended, fellow students set off a riot in which they shot their pistols. They crashed bats up against the walls and doors. They rolled barrels with stones along the halls of Nassau Hall. An expelled student returned and beat up his tutor, and this led to another riot.

In 1820, Yale students bombed one of the residence halls. In 1843 in a Yale riot, a student killed a tutor.

And these are young fellas. Many of them came to college from rather affluent backgrounds. They had been used to a kind of gentle treatment, and all at once they get into a setting in which they are being told exactly what to do. And when they don’t do it, at times they’re being suspended, and that’s really one of the things that provokes a lot of riots.

PETER: How did that tension get resolved over the course of the 19th century? That is, you’ve got these drunken, inattentive, fun-loving adolescents who are going crazy and frequently indulging in violence. And you’ve got college authorities who are pulling their hair out.

HELEN HOROWITZ: Well, yes, but college authorities do begin to change. And a pivotal figure in this is a man at Amherst College. His name is Edward Hitchcock, Jr. He’s the son of the college president. And he’s the one who became, as the first professor of hygiene and physical education, beginning in 1861, he became a transforming force not only for Amherst but probably for schools looking at Amherst and seeing that things were actually going better there.

What he understood was the animal spirits of college men, but he wanted to give those animal spirits better outlets than the town saloon or masturbation. And so he starts a regime of daily gymnastics for all students, and he starts to encourage athletic games. We might think of them as sports. He even put a billiard room in the gym.

BRIAN: “I urge the necessity of introducing playful exercise, singing college songs, et cetera. Sometimes perhaps this may seem to be boisterous and undignified, but it seems desirable to me that a portion of the animal spirits should be worked off inside the stone walls of the gymnasium under the eye of a college officer rather than out of doors, rendering night hideous.”

HELEN HOROWITZ: So this person begins to see students from the perspective of a student, in a way, though not all the way there. I took a look at the course he taught to freshmen, a hygiene course, and it had rules as strict as any of the moralists in terms of issues of sexuality.

But what he did do was he began to see that sports, if properly used, could serve to channel those aggressive impulses of college men, and give them an outlet. And then over time the college found that the fellas who had played sports actually were quite loyal to the college, and wanted to give money to the college, and wanted to come back and see the teams play again.

So you begin to create a cycle at Amherst that other colleges pick up on. And by the late 19th, early 20th century, many colleges in the East such as Yale and Princeton began to hire coaches and bring those games into college life. And that’s how we begin to get something of the apparatus we have today.

PETER: That’s Helen Horowitz, professor of history emerita at Smith College. She’s the author of Campus Life– Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the 18th Century to the Present.


PETER: hosts, what I love about my century is the way those boys acted out, and they trashed buildings, and they had a good old time.

ED: It makes me deeply nervous.

PETER: Yes. Well, that’s what I want to get to, Ed, because if rioting really is the precedent of athletic sports– I mean, athletics in a way channel a lot of that energy. They have student bodies become more passive.

ED: Yes

PETER: But I’m wondering. We did have a riot at Penn State in the wake of the Paterno/Sandusky scandal where large numbers of Penn State students seemingly spontaneously gathered around and just vented on how terrible this was that their athletic heroes were being castigated. I mean, has the culture, the basic attitudes of students, have they changed?

BRIAN: Peter, I think student attitudes really have changed. And I’d go so far as to say that Penn State is really the exception. Joe Paterno was supposed to be the model for what college football could be off the field. And the contrast between that and what happened with Jerry Sandusky was really stark.

This was how college athletics was supposed to work, the Paterno model. And once the Sandusky scandal was revealed, it pulled the curtain back.

PETER: You know, that’s the most striking thing to me, guys, is this was a revolution on behalf of authority, the Penn State riot. It was the cherished, beloved authority figure. He represented the institution. That’s unimaginable in an early 19th century, late 18th century perspective, where the administration was the enemy.


BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll tell you why one of the biggest controversies in college sports isn’t happening in the Big 10. It’s happening in the Ivy League, of all places. You’re listening to BackStory. Don’t go away.

This is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy. We’re marking the onset of March Madness with a look back at the history of college sports. We’re asking how big-time athletics became such an important part of campus life.

BRIAN: Peter, one answer that you hear a lot today is that sports make students well-rounded. It’s an idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks, but it wasn’t until a century ago that it started factoring into college admission decisions.

John Thelin is an historian of education at the University of Kentucky. He says that in the early 1900s, colleges started seeing athleticism as a sign of strong character and a sign of leadership skills.

JOHN THELIN: Theodore Roosevelt, often in his biographical profile they would make a point of the fact that he was on the boxing squad at Harvard.

BRIAN: But Thelin says by the end of World War II, when higher ed became accessible to a much wider range of students, college admission officers start thinking a little differently about what it means to be well-balanced.

JOHN THELIN: I think there was a genuine concern that as academic standards had risen, particularly in metropolitan public high schools, that Harvard could fill its entire class with valedictorians who were science wonks, to the neglect of the whole dimension of a university campus. I mean, a university is a community.

BRIAN: But this does suggest that moment at which admissions offices begin to think about the well-roundedness of the entire class as a whole as opposed to admitting a lot of well-rounded individuals.

JOHN THELIN: I think what you’re pointing to is, how do you achieve balance? Do you achieve it within an individual, or is it something that’s a composite, or collective achievement? The paradox is that the larger the institution– and let’s say that today, most state flagship universities are at least 20,000, some up to maybe 50,000. You actually can find room for athletes with lower academic standards without endangering your overall profile of your student body.

BRIAN: Because you have so many people with high–

JOHN THELIN: Yeah, so if you’re going to have, let’s say, 800 varsity athletes, they can meld into campus so–

BRIAN: They’re dropped in the bucket. Right.

JOHN THELIN: Yeah. Yeah, where actually today the biggest controversy on athletics and admissions is in the Little Three of Amherst, Wesleyan, and Williams. And in the Ivy League, where varsity athletes, recruited varsity athletes, probably represent anywhere from 25% to 33% of their entering class. So that the irony is in some of the most selective academic institutions, the tensions over athletic admissions are most intense.

BRIAN: John Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky’s college of education.


ED: You know, Brian, it’s interesting that Thelin talks about the effects of athletics on schools in the North, because face it, a lot of people, when they think of college football, think about the South. They think about the SEC and schools like LSU and Auburn and Tennessee, where I proudly went, and the reigning national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

And while Alabama has certainly seen some incredible college football, that history has not gone unblemished. Alabama was one of the last schools to integrate its football team. Now, the university first admitted black students in 1963, but it took seven years for a black student to actually play in a football game for Alabama.

The story of how this happened is complicated, so I’m going to bring in one of our producers, Eric Mennel, to help tell the story.

ERIC MENNEL: Hey, guys.

PETER: Hey, welcome to the show, Eric.

ERIC MENNEL: Thanks, guys. So Alabama has this legendary coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. And the story goes that in the early and mid-1960s, Bear Bryant led his football team, his all-white football team, to three national championships. A lot of people feel like they were actually snubbed for a fourth.

PETER: So they’re good.

ED: Yeah, they’re really good. But Bear Bryant sees the ground shifting, and by the end of the decade, the Alabama Crimson Tide just can’t compete with teams that are utilizing black talent. He is ready to integrate the football team because he wants to win, but he’s not sure that the state of Alabama is ready. So Bryant, as the story goes, goes to the head coach of the USC Trojans– that’s USC as in Southern California– and asks him if his team will come to Tuscaloosa in 1970 to play the first integrated game at Alabama.

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, and the story goes that this is all part of Bryant’s calculation. To this point, no black player has ever played in Tuscaloosa, not even for a visiting team. But Bryant knows about one player at USC, one player who is just going to stomp all over Alabama, Sam “Bam” Cunningham.

ED: Sam “Bam” Cunningham?

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, Sam Cunningham is a running back, and he’s an African-American. Bryant wants to show his fans that black players can help them win games. So on September 12, 1970, USC comes to Tuscaloosa, and Sam “Bam” Cunningham, well, he puts on a show.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was just having a field day.

ERIC MENNEL: That’s Andrew Pernell. He graduated from the University of Alabama just a couple of months before the Sam Cunningham game. And looking back on the footage of the game, it’s just so blatantly obvious how much stronger Cunningham is than the Alabama defense. I mean, he’s pounding through the linemen.

ANDREW PERNELL: Running at will.

ERIC MENNEL: And he does one of those moves where you put your hand on the other guy’s face and just sort of push them away.

ANDREW PERNELL: Nobody could catch him or stop him.

ERIC MENNEL: And so Sam “the Bam” Cunningham, the first black player to play in Alabama, runs for 135 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Trojans over the Crimson Tide.

ED: But what’s really amazing is what happens after the game. Bear Bryant walks over to the USC locker room and asks Cunningham to come with him. He brings Cunningham back to the Alabama locker room, stands him up in front of the Alabama players, and says, gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like.

ERIC MENNEL: And then the next year, Alabama offers its first football scholarship to an African-American. And this is the story that makes it into almost all of the documentaries about integrating college football at Alabama. Sam Cunningham actually co-wrote a book about this game called Turning the Tide– the Game that Changed the South. And one of the assistant coaches at Alabama at the time said that Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years. It’s a pretty amazing story.

PETER: Well, yeah.

ED: But there’s a little problem, guys.


ED: You want to tell them, Eric?

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, sure. The problem is that this idea that Sam Cunningham came from California and broke the color barrier in Alabama football, well, it’s not really true.


ERIC MENNEL: So the story is that Sam Cunningham is the one who helped integrate Alabama in 1970. But remember Andrew Pernell, the Alabama graduate from earlier? He’s an African-American, and, well–

ANDREW PERNELL: It was ’67 through part of ’68, and I played football at the University of Alabama.

MALE SPEAKER: Spring practice for the Crimson Tide of Alabama, and everything seems to be just like any previous year, but it’s not. Head coach Bear Bryant spurs on his Southeastern Conference champs, and among the players, pass receiver Andrew Pernell, one of three Negroes on the squad.

ANDREW PERNELL: I was on the intramural football team, and we had a game over by the practice field where the Tide practice. And they had these privacy covers over the fence to keep people from looking in, but some of my friends who were on the intramural team, we went over and we looked through the gaps in the privacy covers. And after a while of looking, I said, I can do that. I think I said it out loud.

ERIC MENNEL: And so Andrew Pernell decides to walk on for the University of Alabama football team, along with four other African-Americans.

ED: And those other guys were Dock Rone.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was a guard from Montgomery, I think it was.

ED: Melvin Leverett.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was a fullback.

ED: Arthur Dunning.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was a running back.

ED: And Jerome Tucker.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was a halfback.

ED: And Andrew Pernell, he was a 5 foot 8, 150-pound wide receiver. Now, you have to understand, none of these guys were All-Americans. They were walk-ons. They had played some high school ball, but they weren’t standouts. Now, most mediocre players just have to prove themselves as athletes, but these five men had to prove themselves as people.

ANDREW PERNELL: The day we went over, we walked into the locker room, and we know that locker rooms are very noisy, a bunch of guys, football players especially. And it was noisy until we walked in that morning, and nobody said a word. And we began practice soon after that.

ERIC MENNEL: What were your interactions with the players like?

ANDREW PERNELL: The players were distant, and it was kind of like I did not exist. There was no camaraderie for the most part as being a member of the team. There was one guy in particular I remember. He came to me in private. And he said, y’all just as good as we are. If my daddy knew I said that, he’d kill me.

ERIC MENNEL: So some of the white players have actually said that Bear Bryant told them they were to treat their black teammates the same way they would treat their white teammates. So Bryant had pretty firm control over the locker room. But the thing he didn’t have control over was the rest of the state of Alabama. And just a warning, this next little bit has some pretty intense language. So if that bothers you, you may just want to turn down your radio for a minute.

ANDREW PERNELL: That year– it was ’67– I got four hate letters. I called them fan mail at the time. It said, dear nigger, haul your black ass north. Colored stars not wanted at Alabama.

ERIC MENNEL: Did you ever get a chance to play in a game?

ANDREW PERNELL: There was once I got all excited, called my parents, and told them I might get a chance to play. I think we were going to play South Carolina that week. Coaches came to me. They were asking me my shoe size, and they asked me about my grades. They were fine. And that just died down. And that was very disappointing. That was one of the most disappointing moments I thought I had.

ED: It was less than a year before the other four guys left the team. It had been a year and a half of practices for Andrew when he had a meeting with one of his coaches.

ANDREW PERNELL: Assistant Head Coach Sam Bailey called me into his office one day, and he said that the university had found out– like they discovered that I was on an academic scholarship.

ERIC MENNEL: So basically every football team in the Southeastern Conference had a quota on the number of scholarship players they could have on the roster. Andrew was receiving a scholarship from the local church, so technically this put Alabama over its limit.

ANDREW PERNELL: So he gave me a choice. He said I could stay on the team, but I would have to give up the scholarship.

ERIC MENNEL: Andrew says his family only made between $3,400 and $3,800 a year, so it wasn’t much of a choice. He left the team.

ANDREW PERNELL: Some of the players that came after me were invited to come, and they were treated as guests. I was not. I was treated as an intruder, uninvited guest. So that made all the difference.

ED: And so three years later, Sam “Bam” Cunningham comes to town, while Andrew Pernell and his four black teammates become a footnote in the Alabama legacy.


BRIAN: hosts, I’ve just got to ask. If that’s the case, how did the Sam “Bam” Cunningham story become the only one that we know today?

ED: You know, I had the same question, Brian, so I went ahead and asked David Mathews. Now, he’s now the president of the Kettering Foundation, but in 1969 and for most the ’70s he was president of the University of Alabama.

F. DAVID MATHEWS: Paul Bryant was a master at public relations, and actually created this myth, I think, to give him some defenses against the people who were in those days very outspoken in their opposition to integration. And so he wanted to give the Alabama folks something they could say that would just take that issue off the board.

ED: So this is, in many ways he was protecting against the right flank.


ED: He saw this as a way of sort of giving white Alabamians a chance to kind of accept this without suggesting that they had knuckled under to this outside agitator, Martin Luther King.


ED: Sam Cunningham gave Paul Bryant a little bit of cover, so a year later he could bring his own black players onto the field.

BRIAN: Yeah, but what really gets me is the fact that 40 years later, this Sam Cunningham story is still the one that people are telling.

PETER: And why do you think that is, Eric?

ERIC MENNEL: Well, in the legacy of Alabama football, Andrew Pernell was really just small potatoes. But Bear Bryant?

ANDREW PERNELL: You have to understand, football in the South, football at the University of Alabama, Bear Bryant was like a god. He could have been governor if he had wanted to. And they still hold him in such high esteem. There are so many things at the university named after him.

ERIC MENNEL: Bear Bryant is a legend. He is perceived at Alabama the way Joe Paterno was perceived at Penn State for so long. But when you start to look at him through the lens of Andrew Pernell’s story, you start to realize that although Bryant treated the African-American walk-ons with tremendous respect, it still took him eight years after the student body integrated to put a black football player in an actual game.

ANDREW PERNELL: He was a great football coach. Could have been a great man. He had the power to do much more than what he did if he had spoken out.

ERIC MENNEL: And that Bear Bryant, the one who could have acted but didn’t, that’s just not the way we want to remember our heroes.

PETER: Eric Mennel is a BackStory producer.

ED: Thanks a lot, Eric.

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, you’re welcome, guys.

ED: So as it turns out, Andrew Pernell went 40 years without telling anybody that he played for Alabama. And there’s an amazing story about how his story was discovered, and you can hear that on our website,


PETER: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the history of college sports. Annie Ungrady is a student at the University of Virginia in our hometown of Charlottesville. She recently learned about an interesting convergence between world history and a college athletics facility very close to home. Here’s Annie.


ANNIE UNGRADY: FDR and his wife Eleanor were on the train down to Charlottesville to make his commencement speech to the graduates of the 1940 class from the University of Virginia. And he had just heard on the train that Italy had joined the war on the Axis side, fighting with Germany against France. So he was on the train, and he was really kind of upset and kind of torn about what to do, because his wife Eleanor actually really encouraged him to speak his mind and to be frank with the university graduates.

MALE SPEAKER: June 10, 1940, Charlottesville, Virginia. The President of the United States addresses the graduating class of the University of Virginia, which includes his son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.

ANNIE UNGRADY: He starts off his speech by talking about how there have been only three times in the United States’ history when the young people have really felt like they were living for our country, and not necessarily for themselves, and not necessarily for their jobs, but they were actually living for their freedom, for their rights. And that would be when they were trying to defeat the British way back at the start of our country, back in the Civil War, and at this point right now.

He really wanted to emphasize– he wanted to bring back that feeling of patriotism to America. So then, following that explanation, he did announce that Italy had joined the work on the side of Germany.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: The decision of the Italian government to engage in the hostilities now raging in Europe–

ANNIE UNGRADY: And FDR was pretty upset about that, because he had been working really hard to kind of formulate relations with Italy, and trying to kind of talk to them, and kind of make a relationship. And then Mussolini goes and he joins Germany’s side, so FDR feels pretty betrayed. So the title of the speech comes from this particular line.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: On this 10th day of June, 1940–

ANNIE UNGRADY: FDR said, “The hand that held the dagger–”

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: The hand that held the dagger–

ANNIE UNGRADY: “–has struck it–”

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: –has struck it into the back–

ANNIE UNGRADY: “into the back of his neighbor.”

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: –of its neighbor.

ANNIE UNGRADY: Once I read that FDR did the speech in Memorial Gymnasium, I just thought it was so crazy. It’s not very new. It’s not very technologically savvy. It’s almost a little dirty. But it has the character that makes people just kind of want to come back. I have sat in Mem Gym and listened to people speak. I have played basketball in Mem Gym. I did a core training course in Mem Gym. And maybe FDR stood literally right above me on the same floor. That’s just a bizarre feeling. It’s like so weird to think about.


PETER: That’s Annie Ungrady, a student at the University of Virginia. If you have an idea for a “History Happened Here” dispatch along the lines of the one we just heard, well, let us know. Our email address is You’ll find details about the kinds of stories we’re looking for at


PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. Don’t go away.

BRIAN: Welcome back to BackStory, where we take your dinner table conversation and give it a little context in American history. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century History Guy. Today on our show, college sports, how they came to be, and why they’ve gotten so big.

ED: And we’ve come to that time when each week we take some questions from our listeners.


PETER: We’ve got Maisie on the line from Lexington, Virginia. Maisie, welcome to BackStory.

MAISIE: Thank you.

PETER: We are talking about college sports.

MAISIE: I am originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, and I played lacrosse in college at Hofstra University. And so my question is kind of a two-pronged question. And first, I’m just wondering when historically then did women’s collegiate sports become a major thing, and how that kind of lines up with Title IX. And then what the impact of Title IX is today.

ED: It’s so important. Let me take a running start, so to speak, at it, and answer the first part of Maisie’s questions about where did women’s athletics in college come from.

And as soon as you have women in college, you start having women athletics. That you find that back in the 1890s– I remember coming across a letter from a young woman just mortified that she had to dress out for gym. And of course in the 1890s, it looks like the swimsuits they had back then. It was all voluminous and everything. But as soon as you start bringing young women together in the collegiate environment, they started playing sports against one another.

PETER: And physical education was absolutely central to coeducation, because for one thing, it was at first considered maybe a dangerous place for women to be because they were neurasthenic, they were hysterical. And so how could they adapt to the challenges of college life? And this proving that women were physically able was part of the agenda of the 19th century expansion of coeducation.

ED: And that higher education wasn’t ruining their health and unfitting them for motherhood.

PETER: That’s exactly right.

ED: We always invoke Title IX, but I’m going to ask my 20th century colleague to actually tell us where did Title IX come from. It’s Title IX of what, Brian?

BRIAN: What we call Title IX was really a series of amendments passed in 1972 to the Higher Education Act of 1965. And what Title IX, or those 1972 amendments did, was make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex at any institution of higher education that was receiving funding from the federal government. And by 1972, that was just about every institution.

ED: That’s right. And it doesn’t say “in college sports,” so Title IX applies to everything. Because sports quickly became sort of a flashpoint on this, because the built-in inequities of funding and support and scholarships and facilities and everything for men’s sports were so obviously out of kilter with those for women’s sports that institutions had to really scramble to create new opportunities for women.

BRIAN: I want to drill into a smaller aspect. There were so many opportunities that came to women administrators and coaches along with the rise of women’s sports. So I have a question for you, and this has truly bugged me for a long time. Why are there men that are head coaches of women’s varsity teams, but as far as I know, no women that are head coaches of men’s teams? Do you know of any reasons why a smart woman coach shouldn’t be coaching the men’s team?

MAISIE: Absolutely not. I think of that movie with Goldie Hawn, and she’s the football coach. It’s a movie because it’s so unusual.

BRIAN: Right.

PETER: Yeah, right. It’s novelty.

MAISIE: It never happens. It’s a novelty, exactly. And I think that just traditionally we think as a society that women will have a more difficult time adapting to the men’s type of thinking, like on-field thinking, whereas the male approach of just straightforwardness can work with women.

PETER: Yeah, we’ve got sensitive men, but we don’t have insensitive women. That’s the problem.

MAISIE: Yes, exactly. It’s a one way street.

BRIAN: You know that sports use consultants a lot, and certainly you could hire a man to teach those women to spit.


PETER: Thanks for calling us.

MAISIE: Thank you, all.

PETER: Right, bye-bye.



PETER: We have yet another call, my dear friends. It’s from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, and it’s Josh. Josh, welcome to BackStory.


PETER: Sports. College. What’s up?

JOSH: I have a somewhat provocative question.

PETER: Whoa. OK, bring it on.

JOSH: And it stems from the piece in The Atlantic by civil rights historian Taylor Branch called “The Shame of College Sports” in which, in addition to a great deal of fine-grained analysis about the NCAA, an organization that he calls a cartel, he deploys a rather provocative analogy to slavery and the plantation.

So this is Branch’s language. “Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene– corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution– is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”

So my question is really just, what do you make of making such analogies? And how are we to make them most effectively?

PETER: Josh, great question. And by the way, listeners, you can get that article linked through our website, hosts, what do you make of the analogy that Josh has brought to our attention here? That is, the athlete equals slave.

ED: This is Ed, the 19th Century Guy, who actually has written some about slavery, and thought about the origins of segregation and stuff. And I would say first of all, if there were not such a preponderance of highly visible and skilled young black men who are student-athletes, the analogy would not come to mind. I do think it’s the racialization of it is what gives any kind of credence at all to the slavery metaphor. And it ties in too to earlier use of black people as spectacle in minstrelsy and in entertainment more broadly.

JOSH: Or unregulated boxing matches.

ED: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so there is something to the racial aspect of it. But calling it slavery when, in fact, it is not, I think trivializes both sides of it. So you can have it be an exploitative relationship. You can have it be asymmetrical. You can have it be the display of black bodies for white entertainment. All those things are just as powerful without using the s-word.

JOSH: But to push back, I don’t think it’s particularly inapt. Clearly if one is going to be too reductive, it’s not going to be useful. But Branch is calling attention in particular to the risk that these men assume, but also to the labor rights that they lack. That they don’t have any kind of collective bargaining. That, as far as the present rules go, they’re not allowed to even bargain for their own deals at their university, so they all are officially on one-year scholarships.

BRIAN: Yeah. Josh?

JOSH: Yeah.

BRIAN: This is Brian from the 20th century, where ostensibly slavery was eradicated. And I’ll defend Branch by noting he called it a “whiff.” He was very, very aware that it was not an exact analogy. And I’ll answer your meta question by simply saying that sometimes metaphors, analogies that are not precise, do get us to the heart of the matter. And I absolutely agree that this is not slavery. But if slavery is his way of having us look carefully at this current system of labor, then I think he’s done us all a favor.

PETER: Yeah, I agree with that, Brian. I think what Branch is really talking about, he’s using this sensational idea, and carefully, provocatively. But he’s really talking about restraint of trade, and that is the antitrust exemption, that the NCAA has created a kingdom for itself. It’s not responsible in ways that we think it should be to universities themselves, to the athletes who are playing the games.

And I think we shouldn’t obsess on the characterization of the athletes as slaves. It’s really the plantation we’re talking about, to extend the metaphor. And should there be such plantations, and should they dominate our public life in the way they do?

ED: I guess I need to get in a final word on this. The reason that I think that I bridle a little against Branch’s slavery thing is, it in some ways avoids our own responsibility with our own very modern kinds of laws and systems of exploitation, and acts as if exploitation is not something we’re actively creating new forms of.

BRIAN: (LAUGHING) We solved that problem.

PETER: That would be true. That would be true.

ED: Yeah, so that’s the thing. It’s, we didn’t inherit this from the 19th century. This is something we have made ourselves.

PETER: Yeah, this is us.

ED: And we have a responsibility for it ourselves. So I think in the sort of meta question that we agree that this is meaningful, but we need to think about what’s the best language, the best meta language, to discuss it in. And I’d say it’d be one that embraces our own responsibility for it.

JOSH: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I tend to have a similar reservation about these kind of analogies. Not only does it wash away our own responsibility, but it implies a kind of historical inevitability about things that are actually quite contingent.

PETER: Josh, you’ve really stirred it up. Thanks for calling.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot, Josh.

JOSH: Thanks, guys, I love the show.

BRIAN: Yeah, bye-bye.


ED: This is BackStory. If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about the history of college sports in America.

BRIAN: Ed, Peter, we’ve spent the hour talking about why big time college sports would be on a campus in the first place. But I think we all know what the real reason is, Ed.

ED: Yeah, money.

BRIAN: I mean, I don’t want to put you on the spot.

ED: Sure you do.

BRIAN: But shouldn’t we be honest with our listeners, and let them know that you have a special interest in this topic?

ED: Well, it’s interesting. I think people who listen all the way to the credits at the end of the show know that I’m president of the University of Richmond. And people who are fans of American college athletics know that we are the Spiders, the only Spiders in the world for some reason.

PETER: And you have a web presence?

ED: Ugh.


ED: Well, I would say the name of our mascot is WebstUR.


ED: But we were national football champs in 2008 at the second level of Division I, and now Sweet 16 in basketball. So I have to admit that I have spent some time thinking about college sports. And it turns out that a lot of the easy stereotypes about this just aren’t true.

So let’s begin with the first one, about does it make a lot of money? Studies have shown one of my favorite sayings, that only a very few schools actually make money off athletics.

BRIAN: Really?

ED: Yeah. So it turns out that just maybe a couple dozen of programs at the biggest football schools with the biggest TV contracts are actually able to translate that into being in the black. So that’s not true. But what else do you got?

BRIAN: Well, I heard, for instance, that it’s publicity, and it kind of drives up all kinds of applications, and that makes you look better on the ratings.

ED: Well, our applications have been going up. But studies have shown that there’s really remarkably little correlation between athletic success and any kind of long-term increase in applications, or, for that matter, very little long-term impact on fundraising. So it turns out that another sort of defense of college athletics as well as the attack on it really is just not really founded in empirical evidence.

BRIAN: Ed, you’ve done a remarkable job of dismissing the material benefits that might accrue from college athletics, money, increase in applications and rating. So that just leaves us with the stuff we love the most, those intangibles about history.

PETER: Hey, Brian, I got one for you. It goes back to my period. And that’s the idea that any corporate institution like a university, its chief imperative is to survive and thrive through the generations, through time. And the brand that a football program brings to a school is part of shaping an identity, a corporate identity, that is going to serve the purposes of perpetuating the institution.

ED: I think that’s really good. What you find is that people remember, ah, the team of ’68. And it’s an immediate guaranteed tradition. And there’s a won-loss record, and it all ties in. So it’s kind of instant history in a way, and it has the value of that.

BRIAN: Eddie, what do you see from your perspective?

ED: I’ve come to know quite a few student-athletes since I’ve been president, and often meet them at 7 o’clock in the morning. We’re the only other people on campus, and they’ve already been in the pool for an hour and a half, or already been lifting weights, and they’re on their way to the very earliest classes so that they can get back to practice in the afternoon. And I see them succeeding to a remarkable extent in the classroom.

So ironically, the very first ideas that we talked about in this show way back in the late 19th century still exist, that for the students who participate, I do believe college athletics is one of the defining parts of their college experience.

BRIAN: And I’ve got the corollary to those series of individual benefits. And that’s something that you guys know we’ve searched for through American history for all of American history, and that’s community.

Because in this very specialized age we live in, as we take minors and sub-minors, we have specialties and sub-specialties, boy, we have so many parts of the university, the research laboratories, the humanities. What is it that brings all of the university together? There really aren’t that many things. And frankly, I think college athletics has the capacity to do that.

PETER: Well, it makes the institution real not just to participants but to fans. It’s the connections that are forged, and it creates community. I think you’re right, Brian.

BRIAN: Yeah, and I’m just going to add one more dimension, guys. It does seem that universities exist as part of a larger community. Sometimes that’s regional. Sometimes that’s quite local. And it does seem to me that college athletics, especially the big state school college athletics, is a way to make that university experience, or at least a part of it, accessible to all the members of that larger community.

You might even find that in Richmond, Ed. I don’t know.

ED: Yeah, it is a source of civic identity. But there’s nothing quite like growing up in Tennessee, where if you had no connection at all to the University of Tennessee, you were still a Vol. You were proud of the Orange. And having the name of your state out there kicking the butt of some other state in the West or the North was deeply satisfying.

And I think what we’ve seen over the course of the show today is that there are reasons that this remains such an important part of American life. It’s not just some irrational artifact out there. And as always, history is a good way to figure out why in the world we have this stuff.


BRIAN: hosts, I’m sorry to say this, but our play clock is down to zero. We are out of time.

PETER: Oh, boo, boo.

BRIAN: But you can take this show into overtime on our website, We have a ton of resources we’ve pulled together on college sports, including recommended reading, photos, a video of the Princeton-Yale football game from 1903– that would not be in color– and an ongoing discussion between our staff and you, the BackStory audience. We want to know what you think. Do sports belong in the university, or is it time to nix them altogether? Let us know at

PETER: Thanks for listening, and don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Eric Mennel, Anna Pinkert, and Jess Engebretson. We had help from Allison Quantz and Nell Boeschenstein.

PETER: Jamal Millner is our technical director. Tony Field is our senior producer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Special thanks today to Robin Lester, whose book Stagg’s University was helpful in telling the University of Chicago’s story at the top of the show. And thanks to John David Briley, author of Career in Crisis– Paul “Bear” Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change.

ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.