EXCERPT FROM THE CARTEL
This is an excerpt from Taylor Branch’s Byliner Original The Cartel
FAME AND CONTROVERSY have been constants since the birth of organized college sports. A newer factor, relatively speaking, is the institutional control of wealth by adults. In 1859, players from Williams College accused Amherst of sneaking in a blacksmith ringer to pitch (and win) the first recorded contest of intercollegiate “baseball,” a game being adapted from British rounders. Under makeshift rules, students challenged rivals from other schools to ad hoc matches of stunning popularity. In 1869, Harvard’s intrepid four-oared crew raced the champions of Oxford through London on the Thames River, losing by three lengths before a gargantuan crowd of 750,000 that included Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill. Eleven years later, President Rutherford B. Hayes joined 100,000 people massed along the Potomac River to watch the world’s best single-scull rower, a Canadian, defeat an upstart American from Cornell.
Students themselves sponsored sporting events through a formative era marked by two Victorian obsessions of the nineteenth century: amateurism and manly virtue. The new American games were developed consciously by and for young gentlemen centered in the elite eastern colleges, within a broader celebration of amateur ideals powerful enough to revive the Greek Olympics after a hiatus of two thousand years. In 1888, alumni groups established the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to promote off-campus sports, especially yachting, with a charter modeled on aristocratic British clubs that excluded mechanics, artisans, and others “engaged in any menial duty.” A neutral definition of the word amateur later proved difficult, if not impossible, but class-based notions suited colleges back then. Unseemly behavior in competition would be confined among peers, and fun acquired serious purpose because the sports arena simulated an impending age of Darwinian struggle.
While the United States did not hold a global empire like England’s, nor profess to want one, its leaders warned of national softness once railroads conquered the last continental frontier. As though to oblige, ingenious students turned variations on warlike rugby into a toughening agent and tonic sensation. The amateur code ennobled football. Today a plaque on the New Jersey site commemorates every participant from the first college game, on November 6, 1869, when Rutgers beat Princeton 6–4 in a scrum-like game without coaches.
Fittingly, at Yale, the “father” of American football married a sister of the world’s leading social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner. Walter Camp, class of ’80, finished six undergraduate years so intoxicated by primitive football that he devoted his life to the game without pay. His forceful arguments persuaded other schools to reduce chaos by trimming each side from fifteen players to eleven. It was Camp’s idea to paint measuring lines on the field. He conceived functional designations for players, coining terms such as quarterback, and invented a scrimmage line to restart paralyzed entanglements. His game remained violent by design. Crawlers could push the ball forward beneath piles of flying elbows without pause until they cried “down” in submission. John L. Sullivan, the perennial heavyweight champion, called bare-knuckled boxing comparatively tame, because in the ring he faced only one opponent at a time. “There’s murder in that game,” he said of football.
In an 1892 game against archrival Yale, the Harvard football team was the first to deploy the “flying wedge,” based on Napoleon’s surprise concentrations of military force. In an editorial calling for the abolition of the play, The New York Times described it as “half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” noting that surgeons often had to be called onto the field. The flying wedge swept into dictionary usage even though it lasted only two seasons. (There is a statuary tribute with diagrams at the Hall of Fame.)
Continuing mayhem prompted Harvard’s faculty to take notice in 1895 with the first of three votes to abolish football, which touched off prominent dissent. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes told his alma mater that he regarded sports casualties “not as a waste but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge seconded Holmes. The Harvard sage George Santayana, in his essay “Philosophy on the Bleachers,” perceived a natural union between physical and intellectual hegemony: “Only the supreme is interesting.”
Harvard’s governing board vetoed the legislated ban, whereupon president Charles Eliot tried to rally his faculty’s cause. “Deaths and injuries are not the strongest argument against football,” declared Eliot. “That cheating and brutality are profitable is the main evil.” Still, Harvard football persisted. Its armchair strategists schemed to counter Princeton’s “revolving tandem,” and fervent alumni built Harvard Stadium in 1903 with zero college funds. After yet another loss to Yale, Harvard waived a key amateur practice: Bill Reid, the team’s first paid coach, started in 1905 at nearly twice the average salary for full professors on campus.
One newspaper story from that year, illustrated with the Grim Reaper laughing on a goalpost, counted twenty-five college players killed during football season. A fairy-tale version of the founding of the NCAA holds that President Theodore Roosevelt, upset by a photograph of a bloodied Swarthmore College player, vowed to civilize or destroy football. The real story is that Roosevelt maneuvered shrewdly to preserve the sport—and give a boost to his beloved Harvard. After McClure’s magazine published a story on corrupt teams with phantom students, a muckraker exposed Walter Camp’s $100,000 slush fund at Yale. In response to mounting outrage, Roosevelt summoned leaders from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House, where Camp parried mounting criticism and conceded nothing irresponsible in the college football rules he’d established. At Roosevelt’s behest, the three schools issued a public statement that college sports must reform to survive, and representatives from sixty-eight colleges founded a new organization that would soon be called the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A Haverford College official was confirmed as secretary but then promptly resigned in favor of Bill Reid, the new Harvard coach, who instituted rules that benefited Harvard’s playing style at the expense of Yale’s. At a stroke, Roosevelt saved football and dethroned Yale.
The fledgling NCAA gained no significant authority for nearly fifty years. It did not hire any staff employees until the 1940s, when the largest universities still paid annual dues of twenty-five dollars. In 1906, with great fanfare, the new rules committee introduced a novel forward pass to “open up” football’s knotted ground clashes, but inhibition hampered the experiment. Incomplete passes were penalized, or ruled turnovers, because purists considered progress by air to be cowardly and soft, if not immoral. Players resisted protective equipment for similar reasons, which prolonged carnage on the field. Princeton’s Tigers, having spurned all but the natural padding of their long “chrysanthemum” haircuts in the 1890s, gradually accepted moleskin “head harnesses.” Not until 1939 could the NCAA mandate helmets.
Rules changed slowly, but college sports stayed chic. Thomas Edison tried out his new “moving camera” at a football game. Cole Porter wrote “Bingo Eli Yale” and many other songs for his alma mater. Scott Fitzgerald, a three-day failure at Princeton football, pestered coaches all his life with suggested plays, and Jack Kerouac was a star college running back until he expressed his maverick impulse in 1942: “Scrimmage, my ass.”
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial coaches made amateur supervision extinct, and people soon forgot that students had scheduled their own games for decades. Although coach Bill Reid did not succeed at Harvard, he set a professional example with his clandestine trip to investigate how Yale outfitted its superior teams. (“I will begin with the shoes,” he recorded meticulously, “and tell what I learned.”) Overbearing coaches wielded a chieftain’s command. At Notre Dame, where his presence eclipsed the players, Knute Rockne extracted large corporate retainers in the 1920s. In 1930, after his Penn Quakers lost 27–0 to Wisconsin, coach J. R. “Lud” Wray decreed that his training table would serve only cream puffs.
The NCAA enshrined amateur ideals for college players while remaining helpless to enforce them. When two small midwestern towns put up $50,000 in a spectacular 1922 football wager, civic leaders bought secret reinforcements from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois. In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation made headlines with a report, “American College Athletics,” which concluded that the scramble for players had “reached the proportions of nationwide commerce.” Of the 112 schools surveyed, eighty-one flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios. Fans ignored the uproar, and two-thirds of the colleges mentioned told The New York Times that they planned no changes. In 1939, freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than their upperclassman teammates.
Embarrassed, the NCAA in 1948 enacted a “Sanity Code,” which was supposed to prohibit all concealed and indirect benefits for college athletes; any money for athletes was to be limited to transparent scholarships awarded solely on financial need. Schools that violated this code would be expelled from NCAA membership and thus exiled from competitive sports.
This bold effort flopped. Colleges balked at imposing such a drastic penalty on each other, and the Sanity Code was repealed within a few years. The University of Virginia went so far as to call a press conference to say that if its athletes were ever accused of being paid, they should be forgiven, because their studies at Thomas Jefferson’s university were so rigorous.
Taylor Branch is best known for his landmark trilogy on the civil rights era, America in the King Years. His latest book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009), is a memoir of his unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history secretly on tape. Aside from writing, Taylor speaks before a wide variety of audiences. He began his career as a magazine journalist for The Washington Monthly in 1970, moving later to Harper’s and Esquire. taylorbranch.com