a1 Georgia State University
At the height of the Progressive Era a number of social scientists, educational leaders, and politicians called for the reform of intercollegiate football. Since the 1880s football had become a popular spectacle, and many were concerned that it was corrupting the country's universities and college men. This article considers the progressive movement to reform football in the context of programs to make the modern American university useful at the turn of the century—including the Wisconsin Idea of state government developed in Madison and the University of Chicago's sponsorship of settlement houses, social work, and university extension. Although many progressives wanted the university to affect society, most were less enthusiastic about the prospect that elements of that society (what Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner dubbed “public influence”) would affect the university. Social scientists theorized the relationship between the university and the public and constructed an intellectual basis for football reform. Reforms proposed and in some cases adopted demonstrated ambivalence regarding football's academic and public role. Reformers wanted to preserve the popular, profitable, and potentially educational enterprise of football, but they also hoped to curtail its influence over burgeoning universities. The Progressive Era effort to control college football and channel it into constructive directions in many ways demonstrates the paradoxical nature of Progressive Era reform and inadvertently contributed to the institutionalization of “big time” intercollegiate athletics.
(Online publication January 18 2011)
Brian M. Ingrassia is visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Since completing his PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign, he has been preparing a book manuscript on the intellectual bases of Progressive Era intercollegiate football reform and the origins of the American ivory tower.