Athletics and the American Way

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Athletics and the American Way:

  • History is Central—May 19,2007

Today’s Tentative Agenda

  • Give a quick overview of the period and some ways to conceptualize it.
  • Focus discussion on smaller number of issues regarding sports, and bring readings into the conversation.
  • Set the stage for teaching discussions by highlighting primary sources/illustrative quotes.
  • Just FYI—you’ll get copies of this presentation, so don’t worry about getting all of the quotes, etc.

Our Big Questions:

  • How are today’s sports “modern,” and how did they get that way?
  • What are the ideologies behind the creation of leisure spaces and organized sports, particularly school sports?
  • What were the different lessons sports were intended to teach to different groups?

What do your students talk about? What topics interest them?

How Do You Teach this Era?

  • Does the State give you any direction?

Industrialization and Its Discontents

Scale of It All

New Immigrants


Gilded Age Contrasts Breakers and Tenement

The “New Woman”

Jim Crow

The Promise of Progressivism

Two Thoughts:

  • 1) Can overwhelm students with narrative of “Massive Changes”
  • 2) This is the creation of the world they know—the “massive changes” don’t seem radical

Our Challenge is to Personalize

  • Three ways to do this (at least)
  • 1) Primary sources related to traditional ways of telling the story
  • --images of tenement houses
  • --Hull House Maps
  • --letters
  • 2) Get better grasp of traditional narratives
  • --More anecdotes in your arsenal
  • --Local history: Getting beyond textbook
  • --Use fiction to help tell story (Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King)

3) Relate the “Big Stories” to Students’ Existing Interests

  • Dating
  • Sports/Leisure
  • The World Around Them

Your Reactions to, and Thoughts About, the Readings? (What do you want to be sure we discuss?)

“Era of Organized Sport, 1890-1950”

  • By looking at sporting development can teach about all of the topics we’ve identified:
    • Wiebe’s “Search for Order”
    • The “New Woman”
    • Changing Racial Patterns
    • Bureaucracies and Organizations
    • Regionalism
    • Chandler’s “Visible Hand”
    • Urbanization, Industrialization, Immigration
    • Commercialization and Distribution

Characteristics of Modern Sport (and Society)

  • Examples?
  • Secularism
  • Equality
  • Specialization
  • Rationalism
  • Bureaucratic Organization
  • Quantification
  • Record Keeping

Modern Sports as Urban Games

  • --From Stephen Hardy’s How Boston Played
  • “Simplified, [the argument] suggests that as cities grew in size, population, and density, their inhabitants felt a longing for the outdoor life and recreational pastimes that were being swallowed up by the stultifying regime of the machine age.”

Hardy Continues . . .

  • “Just as things appeared bleakest, however, urban economic, technological, and demographic conditions formed the foundation for an arena of new leisure forms, adapted to the pace and lifestyle of American cities.”

T. H. Benton, “City Activities with Dance Hall”

Parks, Amusement Parks, and Playgrounds

  • --How are they different?
  • --What are their purposes?
  • --Why are they located in specific places?

Ideals of Parks in late 1800s

  • Parks were to be the “lungs of the city.”
  • 1876 Boston proponent claimed that parks were “reservoirs of oxygen and fresh air. They produce atmospheric currents which sweep through and purify the streets.”
  • AND “oxygen promoted virtue, ‘as surely as sunlight paints the flowers and ripens the fruits of our gardens.’”
  • Early Central Park Map

What did designers want people to do in parks?

  • Be inspired and refreshed by nature.
  • --Especially (hopefully) the working class
    • The model was “receptive recreation.”
    • According to Olmstead, should be no “harangues or loud outcries,” or parades, marching, music, or games

If Parks represented an elite ideal,

  • Then Playgrounds represented urban political pressure
    • Workers didn’t want to spend day off traveling across the city to be inspired by nature
    • Ethnic groups, neighborhood associations, city councilmen and others demanded local playgrounds

Ideologies of Architecture and Public Space

Kasson writes that the White City was intended to be the “Embodiment of public order, cultural unity, and civic virtue, and animating vision of American cultural achievement for an age of disorder, strife, and vulgarity.” (18)

  • Kasson writes that the White City was intended to be the “Embodiment of public order, cultural unity, and civic virtue, and animating vision of American cultural achievement for an age of disorder, strife, and vulgarity.” (18)
  • The Midway was something completely different . . . It was the inspiration for Coney Island.

“Entirely new model of democratic urban recreation.”

“The unofficial capital of the new mass culture”

Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island Original Size: 6 ft 4 in x 7 ft 1/4 in

Reginald Marsh, George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park (1936) Marsh—“made the eroticism of Coney Island explicit in a way that the photographer could not. . . Delight[ing] most in the fleshy character of the scene” (94)

Legacy of Coney Island

  • Kasson suggests “the egalitarian spirit it fostered paradoxically served to reconcile visitors to the inequalities of society at large” (109)
  • “Beneath the air of liberation, its pressures were profoundly conformist.” (105)
  • “A harbinger of the new mass culture, Coney Island lost its distinctiveness by the very triumph of its values.” (112)
  • Was Kasson right to use this as a case study? What might scholars in the future examine to learn about us?

Other topics to explore re: urban athletics (if we have the time later)

  • Baseball as an urban game
  • Boxing as an immigrant/ethnic story

Using School Sports to Explore Important Issues

  • Three reasons to focus on school sports:
  • Advocates left written records of their thoughts and purposes
  • Doing so highlights nicely other tensions in the era (esp. gender, race, class)
  • Easier to relate to students’ lives and experiences

Masculinity and School Sports

  • The basic narrative:
  • Based on Oxbridge model
  • --so crew was first real intercollegiate sport
  • --Harvard-Yale, 1852 (Harvard won)
  • By 1859, had a mini-conference
  • --Yale devoted more resources, trying to show that was a peer to the more prestigious Harvard (this pattern repeated)
  • --as many as 15,000 spectators at races
  • Baseball was next intercollegiate sport
  • --1859—first game, connected to a regatta
  • --led to controversies over amateurism
  • --students earning money on the side as pros
  • 1893—UVA team
  • Track and Field became an intercollegiate sport by 1870s
  • --again, tried to improve schools’ and national reputation by competing against Oxford and Cambridge


  • First game in 1869
  • Yale was dominant early on, led by Walter Camp as player and then alumni/advisor
  • Camp is the father of modern football
  • -- Suggested marking lines on field (gridiron)
    • First downs, scrimmage lines,
    • Allowed blocking
    • Allowed tackling below waist
  • By 1890s, Yale football was seeing annual profits of more than $50,000

Maturation/Modernization of the game

  • Faculty committees replaced student control (1880s—1910s)
  • Formalized rules (and committees to write them)
  • Athletic Conferences
  • Professional coaches (with high salaries and expectations)

Debates about the value of Football

  • Social Darwinists liked it, especially considering the student population at most schools:
    • Univ. of Wisconsin President, “[football develops] those characteristics that have made the Anglo-Saxon race pre-eminent.”
    • Side note—if you want to discuss the intersection of race and athletics—you must talk about the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight on July 4, 1910

Connecting Football and “The Strenuous Life”

  • Countered effects of a sedentary, bureaucratic life.
  • Addressed a generation’s fears that they could never match fathers who fought in the Civil War
  • Countered Victorian restrictions and “feminization” of culture

TR’s Essays: Chicago, 1899

  • “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid triumph.”

“The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind . . . All these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs . . . These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth living.”

  • “The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind . . . All these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs . . . These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth living.”

TR and College Football

  • What does his essay on “professional sports” tell us about TR’s attitudes toward college athletics?

Critics of Football

  • Detracted from educational mission (Frederick Jackson Turner made this argument)
  • Too commercialized
  • Too brutal and violent
    • Was unfavorably compared to boxing, because the “right people” were being corrupted by college football


  • 18 players killed in football games (3 collegians)
  • 88 serious collegiate injuries
  • Several schools dropped football (Columbia, Stanford, California)
  • Lots of critical press—including photos of mangled players

TR Gets Involved

  • Invited Yale, Harvard, Princeton to White House to discuss reform
  • Other meetings  creation of NCAA
  • Rule changes  opening up the game
    • Liberalized forward pass rules
    • Needed to get 10 yards, not 5 for first down

Enormous Popularity and Perceived Values Trump Concerns

  • 1903-Harvard spent $250,000 to build 38,000 seat stadium
  • 1913—Yale Bowl spent $400,000 to seat 67,000
  • 1920s saw seven more stadia seating 70,000 completed on college campuses

Women’s Athletic Options: Inside and Outside of Schools


  • Several bicycle crazes in the 1800s, the most important was in the 1890s
  • 1880s: “Safety” bicycle had air-filled tires, ball bearings, and seat between the tires: weighed less than 35 pounds
  • Production soared:
    • 1890: 27 Manufacturers made about 40,000
    • 1896: 250 Manufacturers made more than 1,000,000
  • Had special frames for women, and many uses:
  • According to 1896 Boston Herald
    • Matrons hoping to lose weight wearing sweater “so warm that it really makes one hot to see it.”
    • Young girl courting, in a “divided skirt and white waist”
    • The serious “scorcher” who “much prefers to wear bloomers that resemble as nearly as possible the attire of the sterner sex, and who dotes on riding a diamond framed safety with the speed of a racing man.”
      • There were even publicized races for women

With used bicycles still costing at least $15, working class women were largely excluded from this athletic endeavor.

  • Basketball, however, was another story.

Based on our readings, what seems important to discuss re: women’s basketball?

  • From Cahn?
  • From Primary Sources

1900s: Women’s Basketball and Varsity Athletics are Flourishing

Debates over the Merits and Dangers of Women’s Athletics

  • Dudley Sargent’s “Are Athletics Making Girls Masculine?” Ladies Home Journal (March 1912).
  • 1900– University of Nebraska
  • --Played a different game in a different gymnasium (court below = before 1938)
  • --See “Women’s Basketball” Primary Source

Anti-Competition Movement

  • Early 1920s, a national movement, led by women, shut down almost all women’s competitive school and collegiate athletic programs.
  • --Was a reaction to contemporary developments in men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics AND in women’s industrial athletics.
  • --Wanted Controlled Athletics for Women:
        • Controlled by Whom?
        • Which women need most protection?

Gertrude Ederle after Crossing English Chanel, 1926

Let’s look closely at the Resolutions of the NAAF’s Women’s Division:

Defining Feminine Characteristics—1920s

  • “Speaking bluntly, one of the most precious qualities of girls’ characters is endangered. . . . Games like basketball and baseball are combative sports. They develop ugly muscles—muscles ugly in girls—as well as scowling faces and the competitive spirit. As an inevitable consequence your girls may find it more difficult to attract the most worthy fathers for their children.”

Alice Sefton, early 1930s

  • “It is usually when they are exceeding their powers that women appear unlovely. When a woman sets her jaw in grim determination to win at any cost, or plays so long that lines of fatigue draw her face into contortions, and she loses control of her coordinations, then she sacrifices some of her beauty because she is violating principles of health. . . That look of ghastly strain, that awkwardness and lack of equilibrium and that breathlessness should not be chalked against the sport itself but must be prevented.”

Play Days

  • Intercollegiate participation, but NOT competition

Some ways to earn points for Women’s Athletic letters under anti-competitive systems

  • Maryville College (TN)
  • Sleep “from “time lights cut out until 6 a.m., during any 23 days out of 30” with the windows open “top to bottom.”
  • Bathe daily in water not “too hot or too cold.”
  • Dietary restrictions: “no coco cola is allowed at any time.”
  • Students should “evacuate” themselves daily “at regular time, if possible preferably after breakfast.”
  • Change underwear daily

Outside the Orthodoxy: African American Women’s College Programs

The Challenge to the Orthodoxy

  • Context for the “Concerning Competition” document
    • Gladys Palmer at Ohio State
    • Student pressure and Faculty desires
    • Great political document—they tread very carefully
      • We agree on same principles
      • Can only make this suggestion because organizations have done such a fantastic job training people, etc.

Different Versions of “Democratic” Sport

  • “Girl for every game, and a game for every girl” with no special accommodations for, or attention to, better athletes
  • Vs.
  • “It is impossible to legislate out of a person the instinctive urge to compete.”

Elizabeth Halsey’s (Iowa University) Response

  • “It is obvious that intercollegiate athletic competition at the present time has the same practical objective that it has for years; i.e., to determine winners and to make money.”

These aren’t small stakes. . .

  • OSU “is promoting an intensification of competition at a time when our society is in such great need of better techniques of cooperation. I believe that democracy can adapt to rapidly changing economic and social conditions. It must, however, move away from the cutthroat competition of unregulated individualism toward acceptance of disciplined self-regulation and cooperative planning.” WOW!!
  • Wants true “democratic” athletics, and not “athletic aristocracy.”

The Golf Tournament

The Legacy . . . Title IX

Concluding Thoughts?

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