From Thanksgiving to New Years Day and the following weekend, the college football schedule is filled with bowl games. After the New Year begins, college sports fans can turn their attention to the height of the college basketball season that culminates in the annual March Madness NCAA Division I tournament. College athletics is big business although perhaps only ten to twenty Division I programs make money each year.
While many books have been written about sports including college sports, there are a few that I found interesting for their background about the origins of the modern college sports “game” and its current state of commercialization. John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education is a fairly comprehensive book about the origins and development of America’s colleges and universities. In a chapter entitled “Alma Mater,” Thelin outlines major developments during the 1890’s to 1920, a time period that he calls the “age of university building” and the “golden age of the college.” During this period, going to college became “fashionable and prestigious” and the national media covered the daily life of a college student in the same manner that the lives of the rich and famous are covered today. During that period, university colors and mascots were conceived and adopted and the role of alumni associations and fundraising became very important.
Originally, intercollegiate sports were run by the students. The coaches were unpaid seniors or graduate students and the athletic association funded the cost of team sports through the assessment of student fees or donations. During this critical period of 1890 to 1920, the focus shifted from student-run to professionally run under the auspices of an athletic director and professional coaches. Thelin provides a glimpse of how corporations and/or alumni contributed to the funding of the programs and how the professors were left out of the circle of power regulating the activities of athletics.
Carlisle vs. Army, written by Lars Anderson, covers the same time period in college athletics as Thelin. Anderson, a writer for Sports Illustrated, chose to focus his book on college football, more specifically a game in 1912 between the Carlisle Indian School and West Point. Anderson’s narrative focuses on the development of Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower as students and football players and the professionalism of Pop Warner, Carlisle’s coach, who was one of the innovators and pioneers of modern football. The book is a very interesting read for anyone familiar with the story of Jim Thorpe and his athletic successes including winning the Pentathalon and Decathalon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. The book is also successful at outlining some of the major events that changed college sports and why (Theodore Roosevelt’s summoning of the major college presidents to Washington to discuss the deaths and injuries of student athletes, the creation of the NCAA in 1906, etc.).
Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, addresses the commercialization of college sports in his book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Bok states that college athletics are the “oldest form of commercialization in American higher education.” He also provides some interesting insights into the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the NCAA as well as the difficulty college presidents have in controlling the spiraling costs of athletics as well as the constant pressure on coaches and athletic directors to win. Bok also cites the dismal academic performance of recruited student athletes, the relaxed admissions standards for athletes at public and private universities, and their graduation rate that is lower than that for non-athletes. Bok portrays the costs of all but the most successful programs as an example of commercialization attempts by colleges and universities that do not provide the payback originally intended.
I enjoy watching college sports and have purchased season basketball tickets to Maryland and Duke men’s basketball games. Watching is entertaining. When I think about the complexity of the underlying athletic enterprise including facilities, fund raising, recruiting, etc., I am grateful, however, that “our athletes don’t play games” at AMU and APU.