The depression has hit college and school sport almost as hard as it has hit other businesses, but when we get a good perspective of the picture, we may all come to the conclusion that in this one respect the depression may have been the blessing in disguise.
Years from now when people ask me how I chose my dissertation topic, I’ll recite the above passage. It was written by Glenn S. “Pop” Warner in the October 7th 1933 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I stumbled across it while doing research for a paper I was writing about entrepreneurial coaches in the 1920s. I selected Warner, along with Knute Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg, as my central figures. Each are considered the “godfathers” of major college football. Since writing my master’s thesis I’ve been particularly interested in Warner, who is perhaps best known for coaching the legendary Jim Thorpe and the youth football league named in his honor. (I had originally wanted to write a biography of Warner.)
This passage, however, piqued my interest. I was drawn to it both for its shock-value and the subtle anxieties embedded in it. Warner admits earlier in the article, fittingly entitled “Football’s New Deal,” that what he is about to write “may sound like heresy, coming from one who has for forty years derived a living from training college athletic teams.” But he believes in his message. He’s uncomfortable with what football has become, with what he has made it. Ironically, however, the depression has given him hope. He suggests that it offers a chance to hit the reset button on college athletics and reexamine what they’ve become.
I argued in that first seminar paper that Warner was not alone in these sentiments. Four years earlier — less than a week before the stock market crash, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report on “American College Athletics.” The report chided the college sports enterprise writing, “apparently the ethical bearing of intercollegiate football contests and their scholastic aspect are of secondary importance to the winning of victories and financial success.”
What both of these events reveal to me is the contingency of history. How, amidst the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, did big-time college football not only survive but seemingly get stronger? What impact did the Great Depression have on big-time football? I’m not convinced that the rise of gridiron universities was an inevitable growth that began with Knute Rockne and Red Grange and “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s. Warner’s statements suggest that it wasn’t. While these are simple questions and a simple hypothesis, I hoped they’d at least provide a good starting point for further exploration.
Since this early hypothesizing and passing my prelims, I’ve started digging in and reading to discover what’s out there and what I’m going to contribute. I’ve decided to focus on the sport of college football from the 1929 Crash to attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It’s been tricky and confusing at times. After reading some sources I’ve thrown my hands up thinking that I’ve found the answers to my questions. But others have intrigued me and left me pondering other issues.
A lot of what I am seeing in my reading about college football in the 1930s is how the game is truly becoming modern. Many of the things we take for granted now and the ideas we associate with football were created during this period of turmoil. In a lot of ways it seems like the turmoil didn’t last very long and in fact caused the game to thrive.
- One example comes from a recent Journal of Sport History article by Kathleen O’Toole that suggests that the Great Depression put pressure on schools for profits and motivated them to transform the game’s relationship with radio. This created more money and pushed the sport further into the big-time. She further suggests that this push for media money is not unlike the current preoccupation with conference-wide television networks. The article comes from O’Toole’s dissertation that examines the relationship between college football and radio in the 1920s and 1930s and the move from educational to commercial radio.
- Similarly, the 1930s were the great era of bowl game creation. While the Rose Bowl had been around for quite a while, four other news bowl games sprouted out throughout the decade. As Robert Ours has outlined, the Sugar and Orange bowls began in 1935 (although forerunner began in 1933), the Sun Bowl was added in 1936, and the Cotton in 1937. These postseason games were the product of chamber of commerce interested in attracting tourists and vacationers. They put up large guarantees to the home and visiting teams. The 1935 Sugar Bowl promised $15,000 for the visiting team and $12,500 for the home team.
- The annual College All-Star Game began in 1934 between college all-stars and an NFL team. This was a huge change from the anti-professionalism of the 1910s and 1920s. Some of the money was used for charity, etc. during the Great Depression. Raymond Schmidt describes the role of the Chicago Tribune as a big supporter and organizer in his book on the history of the event.
- Brad Austin discusses how football was viewed Ideologically during the Depression. In his 2000 article in the Journal of Sport History, he shows how the game became associated with and championed by those against communism and socialism. Austin arguest that during the 1930s football was used as a tool to showcase true American, capitalist competition and strength against the corrupt and collectivists Europeans factions as well as the left-wing politicians in Washington. Although he doesn’t extend his argument beyond the decade, in many ways, he is illustrating the birth of this ideology that continues on into the Cold War uses of football and underscores why so many viewed football as an important tool during the Second World War.
- Race is another issue to consider. According to Lane Demas, UCLA was one of the few exceptions to the “gentleman’s agreements” that excluded African American players. Jackie Robinson transferred to UCLA in 1939 as was one of 5 African American on their team. USC had integrated earlier, but because of some rumors about white women and black players, Howard Jones segregated the team again.
- And of course, you can’t forget about the lengthy discussions offered about the Carnegie Report and athletic reform during the 1930s. Just as the Depression launched hundreds of New Deal programs aimed at fixing the economy, there was also dozens of reform movements in response to the Carnegie Report. Ronald Smith and John Thelin have written extensively on these efforts. One of these efforts was an agreement by the Southern Conference to openly offer athletic scholarships and eliminate the shady dealings and shamateurism uncovered by the Carnegie Foundation. Throughout the decade questions of reform and pay-for-play were debated, it’s interesting that such a decision was offered while other conferences continued to reject the idea. This is indicative of slow movement, but still progress. Other efforts were led by University Presidents, like Thomas Gates of Pennsylvania, who lead a commission to come up with plan to restore amateurism to college athletics.
- Howard Savage, primary author the Carnegie Report, issued an update in 1932 that continued to badger administrators to think about the place of sports in higher education. Writing in Carnegie Bulletin 26, he questions the role of colleges in training future professional athletes. “The propriety of using educational funds to produce professional players for league baseball and football apparently has not been publicly called into serious question,” he writes, “Big league baseball, football, and hockey teams have had their share of college stars” (47). Such a development is deplorable to Savage because it downplays and devalues education. Savage suggests that by developing professional players colleges are inadvertently encouraging students to ignore their education and think of professional sports as viable future career. In many ways this argument continues today among those who question the type of education that college athletes receive while having to travel to juggle classes, practices, travel to games, among other commitments. Similarly, Savage implies that spending money on college sports is a bad investment of education funds. Although he doesn’t explicitly state why, it appears that he is implying that athletes will come to see college as a sort of minor league that they must pass through before attaining the riches of college sports. In this way, he’s anticipating many of the problems associated with the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule. The 1920s and 1930s were filled with different questions of this type that continue to resonate in our current sporting climate. Savage and other scholars were critical of the role of the mass media in boosting and perpetuating stories of sports heroes that further complicated the relationship between athletics and education. As Michael Oriard has pointed out, the media played an integral role in building big time football, spreading it west, and more generally popularizing the game. Yet, prior to the 1920s and ‘30s most of the publicity surrounding college sports was free. The commercialization of college sports was fairly limited in the world of print-media. Radio, however, changed all of that.
From reading many of these studies and my short outline, one may get the impression that the Great Depression was nothing more than a tiny blip on the metaphorical radar of the albatross of big-time athletics. While there were many genuine debates about big-time sports and their trajectory, the Depression left relatively few casualties in its wake. The University of Chicago cut its football program in 1939. Jock Sutherland resigned under pressure at the University of Pittsburgh. Sure, Howard Savage and Francis Wallace dug up dirt, but they couldn’t drum up a critical mass of supporters to subvert the dominant paradigm. Indeed, as Ronald Smith has explained, both collectivist and individualist approaches to reform failed. At the same time, radio boomed, summer all-star games and winner bowl games expanded, and by the late 1930s season ticket sales to not only rebounded, but by 1936 to surpass those of sport’s “Golden Age” in the 1920s.
This overview of my preliminary research and historiography highlights most of the major events and trends of the decade. There’s quite a bit going on. A lot of it has been covered and explored, but I haven’t seen anyone connect the dots. I know a dissertation shouldn’t be too synthetic, but my initial hunch is to approach it that way. I want to show that the decade was pivotal in developing many of the modern aspects of college football that we take for granted today. These aspects range from the Heisman trophy, bowl games, debates over professionalism, using the media to make money, among others. At this point, I’m still not sure how valid such an approach and argument are for the project.
There is still too much going on. There’s nothing really original about my argument yet, either. After describing a lot of the issues and providing an overview of the decade in a recent meeting with my advisor, he paused and asked me what I’m going to argue. I quickly replied that I don’t really know. In a lot of ways I have answered my initial questions, at least superficially. I’ve gotten a feel for the contours of the project but there is no depth. It’s a weird place to be.
Lately I’ve been struggling with what to do next. I’m continuing to read various primary and secondary sources, but I feel less guided after my initial sketch. My advisor has encouraged me to start to start with a broad review of the decade’s periodical literature. The idea is that by reading what Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Literary Digest, and the other major magazines were printing about the sport I’ll be able to get a better picture about what the culture was saying and thinking about the sport. It’s a lot to wade through and it’s been slow going.
I know there is something here and that it’s going to be a good project, but I’ve been a bit frustrated with it lately. Somedays it feels too sports focused. I want to write something that connects to larger cultural and society issues. I don’t want to be just a sports historian or a college football historian. In my others projects I’ve had issues of race, representation, or transnational connections to make. So far I don’t have that here. I think as I keep reading and working through the source I’ll find something to latch on to, but not having it bugs me. I just need to keep faith. Every time I start doing a new research project I’m reminded of the sage words of one my undergraduate professors: “The sources will guide you.”