2020 witnessed the most boisterous summer of student athlete activism in half a century. Not since the late 1960s revolt of the Black athlete had college athletes been so outspoken. A letter from athletes to the Pac-12 Commissioner expressed the mood in blunt terms: “NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically.”
Hundreds of athletes demanded that their campuses rename buildings and remove statues associated with slavery and segregation; increase outreach efforts to underrepresented high school students; end excessive salaries among NCAA administrators and college coaches; and provide compensation to athletes beyond scholarships that are contingent upon strict behavior and performance requirements.
College sports presents us with a paradox. The popularity of college sports is astounding. Twenty percent of adults surveyed described themselves as avid fans of college football, while another 31 percent considered themselves casual fans. Ditto for college basketball.
This popularity is evident in extraordinary levels of attendance and viewership. During the 2019 football season, over 47 million spectators attended Division 1, 2, and 3 games. Regular season football telecasts were seen by 145 million unique viewers.
But if intercollegiate athletics remains extraordinarily popular, its future is highly problematic.
The pandemic hit college athletics hard, leading many schools to trim athletic department budgets, lay off athletic staff, halt the athletic facilities building spree, and cut the number of sports they offer.
But COVID-19 represents only one of many challenges facing college sports. Equity presents another challenge. Athletic programs are under intense legal and moral pressure to dismantle cultures, policies, resourcing, and marketing that privilege men’s sports.
Then there’s the issue of athletes’ rights. The headline of a recent essay by Washington Post sports columnist Jerry Brewer makes the point powerfully: “The difference between a plantation and college sports: A plantation didn’t pretend.”
Declining student attendance at football and basketball games poses another threat, since many programs depend heavily on student activity fees. Meanwhile, colleges face vociferous demands to introduce new sports, including skateboarding and esports.
Another looming threat: The emergence of options for high school basketball players willing to forgo immediate entry into college. The NBA’s offers select high school players a 6-figure salary to participate in a developmental program, while Overtime media has announced plans for a new basketball league featuring 16 to 18 year olds.
Then there’s the biggest threat of all, which comes from the athletes themselves. The threat of unionization and lawsuits over concussions and inequities in funding and support and the right to profit from their own image and accomplishments.
I write today not as a sports critic or naysayer, but as a historian who believes that a knowledge of the past can inform campus and societal conversations.
What might history teach us as we contemplate the future of college sports?
1. One of American higher education’s most distinctive features is its emphasis on college sports.
The United States is unique in the link between athletics and academics. Intercollegiate sports has long been central to college’s appeal. However much academics might decry the impact of intercollegiate sports on student cultures, institutional spending, and campus priorities, intercollegiate athletics helps explain the global dominance of American higher education.
Team sports contribute significantly to alumni loyalty, local and regional identities, and recruitment and admissions – and fundraising.
But excesses in college sports inevitably produce a reaction. Repeated scandals over recruiting and payoffs and meddling by boosters threaten public support and demands for reform.
Right now my own institution is embroiled in controversy as it is poised to reportedly spend as much as $24 million to buy out Tom Herman and his coaching staff -- after paying $16.7 million to buy out Charlie Strong and his assistants, and $2.75 million to buy out Mack Brown.
2. Complaints about the commercialization of college sports are longstanding. But in fact college sports were wrapped up in commercialism from the start.
Withering criticism of college athletics has a long history. Upton Sinclair’s 1922 denunciation certainly sounds familiar: “College athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become a monstrous cancer, which is rapidly eating out the moral and intellectual life of our educational institutions.”
It’s not surprising that when the Marx Brothers unleashed an anarchistic assault on all facets of respectable society – against patriotism, high culture, and genteel morality – perhaps their single most popular target proved to be college football in the 1932 musical comedy Horse Feathers.
But the very first intercollegiate competition – a rowing match between Harvard and Yale in 1852 – was sponsored by a railroad to advertise its passenger service between Boston and Montreal.
What makes much of today’s criticism of college sports distinctive is that it is leveled by athletes themselves. The UNC linebacker Jake Lawler explains why this is the case: "The power dynamics have shifted, the status quo has been unbalanced, and it's been tipped into the favor of student-athletes.”
3. The twin pillars of college sports discourse – amateurism and the concept of the student athlete – are increasingly viewed as a sham that is designed to protect an exploitative status quo.
The amateur ideal increasingly strikes many as an excuse used by many big time college sports programs not to share the revenue that football and basketball generate with the athletes themselves. At the same time, the notion of the student athlete who participates in sports just as other students work on the school newspaper or play in the band looks like a tool used to prevent athletes from being treated like employees eligible for workman’s compensation and other benefits when they are injured and for due process before they are stripped of their fellowships.
4. Much of the history of college athletics isn’t found on the gridiron or the basketball courts or track fields.
That history has taken place in the law courts, Congress, and smoke-filled rooms where college presidents, athletic directors, and NCAA administrators set policies to benefit their campuses, while giving no voice to the athletes.
5. The history of college sports is a story of might have beens.
Contingency, not inevitability, defines the history of college sports. There have been several moments since World War II when the NCAA might have decided to share revenue more equally among the participating campuses or treat women’s sports more equitably or better protect athletes’ rights or do more to support non-revenue Olympic sports.
Competitive team sports are a relatively recent historical invention, less than 200 years old. Before the 1840s, young people played games, tossing and kicking balls, riding horses, going fishing, and wrestling. But they didn't take part in modern sports -- in competitive team sports, played according to clearly defined rules, with records of wins-and-losses.
It was not until the late 1830s that the first modern sports were invented. The timing was not accidental. During this period, America became more urban and industrial. Modern sports arose provided a way for young men to socialize, compete, and demonstrate their masculinity.
Modern team sports were justified on the grounds that they embodied the manly virtues of self-discipline, responsibility, and dedication. Especially after the Civil War, team sports served as a moral substitute for war and a replacement for participation in local militias.
Team sports also provided a symbolic embodiment of modern values of team work, sacrifice, cooperation, and playing by the rules.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sports acquired additional ideological significance. Football was established on elite college campuses to ensure that the country's elite would not become effete. It was a way for wealthy young men to prove their manliness and prepare them for societal leadership.
Yet although originally college sports were targeted at the native born, immigrants and outsiders quickly discovered that sports offered a path to cultural assimilation and upward mobility. College sports became intertwined with two of this country’s most powerful ideas: that of the melting pot, where unity was achieved out of diversity, and meritocracy, in which individuals achieved success based only on their skills and determination.
There was another way of thinking about sports – one associated with women’s athletics. Female educators prior to the 1960s, summed up their philosophy with the phrase “a girl for every sport and a sport for every girl.” These proponents of women’s sports valued participation over competition and winning, and stressed health, fair play, and sociability. Young women, in their view, should not play before spectators and should be coached and administered exclusively by women.
But as we all know, that vision of college sports lost out, with a masculinist win-at-all-costs ethic triumphing.
Since the 1960s, much of the symbolism that had enveloped sports has faded. What replaced that earlier symbolism – where competition transformed boys into men, and where the young learned self-discipline, teamwork, and respect for the rules – was a cynical new view, no doubt fueled in part by generational and racial antagonism.
Critics increasingly regarded sports as little more than passive entertainment and spectatorship and associated male athletes with high level of aggression evident in various forms of antisocial behavior including a disproportionate propensity toward violence and sexual assault.
The pandemic and the athletic protests of the past year offer us an much needed opportunity to rethink campus sports. As we engage in this process, I’d urge us to bear three principles in mind: That our campuses need unifying events and traditions. That we need examples of excellence that are physical as well as academic. And that we need to encourage much greater participation in physical activities of all sorts.
The first century Roman poet Juvenal was certainly right in praying for a healthy mind in a healthy body – for now, more than any time in the recent past, we need recognize that physical exertion is essential. It can reduce stress, bring people together, and contribute to our physical health but psychological well-being.
The time has come to imitate the early Protestant reformers and throw off the excesses and excrescences that have grown up around college sports and treat our athletes more fairly even as we extend opportunities to participate in sports far more broadly.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin