There was a time when football was king at the University of Chicago. Their famous coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, ran the program from 1892 to 1932. His teams were (unofficial, but widely recognized) national champions in 1905 and 1913. His teams won 314 games, which means that even after all these years he ranks 10th for most wins among college football coaches. Stagg is credited with fundamental innovations to the way we think about football: the "tackling dummy, the huddle, the reverse and man in motion plays, the lateral pass, uniform numbers."
But in 1939, in a step that seems to me almost inconceivable for any current university with a big-time football program, the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, shut down the University of Chicago football team.
For a sense of how shocking this was, I'll quote from Milton Mayer's 1993 biography, Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir (pp. 139- 140). Mayer describes the role of Amos Alonzo Stagg, the Grand Old Man, at the University of Chicago.
The Old Man was Chicago's oldest—and only indigenous—collegiate tradition except for the campus carillon rendition of the Alma Mater at 10:06 every night because the Old Man wanted his players to start for bed at 10:00 and to get there when the Alma Mater was finished at 10:06:45. The most reverent moment of the year was the moment at the Interfraternity Sing when the old grads of Psi Upsilon marched down the steps to the fountain in Hutchison Court with the Old Man at their head. If ever there was a granite figure that bespoke the granite virtues, it was his.
In 1892 ... Amos Alonzo Stagg was appointed as an associate professor (at $2,500 a year) with lifetime tenure—the first (and very probably the last) such appointment in history. His job would never depend upon his winning games. But he won them; in his heyday, all of them. As a stern middle-aged, and then old, man he continued to believe in the literalism of the Bible and the amateurism of sports. If (as untrackable rumor had it) some of his latter-day players were slipped a little something—even so much as priority in getting campus jobs—he never knew it. If their fraternity brothers selected their courses (with professors who liked football) and wrote their papers for them, if, in a word, they were intellectually needy, he never recognized it; apart from coaching football, he was not intellectually affluent himself.
The Old Man was sacred, sacred to a relatively small but ardent segment of the alumni, sacred to some of the old professors who had come with him in 1892, sacred to some of the trustees who, in their time, had had their picture taken on the Yale Fence, sacred to the students, who had nothing else to hold sacred, sacred to the local barbers and their customers, sacred, above all, to the local sports writers who, with the Cubs and the White Sox where they were, had nothing much else to write about. The first Marshall Field had given Harper a great tract adjoining the original campus for the student games that Harper spoke of. It was called, of course, Marshall Field, but it had long since become Stagg Field. The Old Man was untouchable—and so, therefore, was football.
But by the 1930s, University of Chicago football had been in decline for some time. As Mayer describes it, the 57,000-seat stadium was about one-tenth full. Part of the reason was that enrollments had grown much more at other schools, and the University of Chicago at that time was attracting large numbers of self-supporting transfer students who rode the streetcars to the school and had little interest in big-time football. In addition, U-Chicago had not bent to accommodate the then-common patterns of big-time college football. About half of all Big Ten college football players at that time majored in physical education, which Chicago did not offer as a major. In addition, it was standard practice at the time for college alumni to subsidize the players, a practice that--by the 1930s--was not encouraged at U-Chicago.
Hutchins was clearly considering an end to University of Chicago football for several years. In one anecdote, he was asked by a college trustee: "Football is what unifies a university—what will take its place?" Hutchins answered: "Education." Hutchins nudged Stagg out the door after 40 years. By 1938, Hutchins was ready to go public in an essay in the Saturday Evening Post called "Gate Receipts and Glory" (December 3, 1938). It was full of comments like this:
Money is the cause of athleticism in the American colleges. Athleticism is not athletics. Athletics is physical education, a proper function of the college if carried on or the welfare of the students. Athleticism is not physical education but sports promotion, and it is carried on for the monetary profit of the colleges through the entertainment of the public. ...
Since the primary task of colleges and universities is the development of the mind, young people who are more interested in their bodies than in their minds should not go to college. Institutions devoted to the development of the body are numerous and inexpensive. They do not pretend to be institutions of learning, and there is no faculty of learned men to consume their assets or interfere with their objectives. Athleticism attracts boys and girls to college who do not want and cannot use a college education. They come to college for "fun." They would be just as happy in the grandstand at the Yankee Stadium, and at less expense to their parents. They drop out of college after awhile, but they nre a sizable fraction of many freshman classes, and, while they last, they make it harder for the college to educate the rest. Even the earnest boys and girls who come to college for an education find it difficult, around the middle of November, to concentrate on the physiology of the frog or the mechanics of the price structure. ...
Most athletes will admit that the combination of weariness and nervousness after a hard practice is not conducive to study. We can thus understand why athleticism does not contribute to the production of well-rounded men destined for leadership after graduation. In many American colleges it is possible for a boy to win twelve letters without learning how to write one.
When teaching a college class, I've had the experience of a scholarship athlete coming up to me to apologize and to explain that, while they enjoyed my class, the pressures of early-morning weightlifting, frequent travel, or recovering from injury made it hard for them to study and to perform well. As a teacher, it's a helpless feeling. You can't reasonably tell a student to give up their athletic scholarship. The university was paying these very young adults for their athletic performance, which has for them become a ball-and-chain on their academic performance.
Hutchins points out that the revenues available from big-time football led schools to an arms race in which they feel compelled to spend ever-more on coaches, practice facilities, and support of teams. It also led to pressure to expand the season (which was then often eight or nine games) to bring in additional revenues. But the overall balance of high spending in the quest for high revenues was that college athletics were a money-losing proposition. That's still true today, when the typical university with big-time athletics loses money on its athletics program: that is, revenue-producing sports like football, basketball, and some places hockey or volleyball are not enough to cover the expenses of the athletic department.
Hutchins offered a few proposals that he surely knew to be doomed. How about nearly free admission to all college athletic events? Hutchins suggested 10 cents. With this change, athletics would become part of the overall university budget, and could make its case for support vs. other possible uses of university funds. A likely outcome might be that an emphasis on intramurals with broad participation across the student body, in activities that people will be to do all their lives (unlike football), will get priority. How about lifetime tenure for athletic directors and coaches? After all, if they are being hired for their character and knowledge and past record, why should their future employment depend on whether they have a few seasons with a poor won-loss record?
Hutchins announced the end of football in a relatively short address to the University of Chicago students on January 12, 1940 ("Football and College Life" (Address to undergraduates, Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, January 12, 1940, available in 1940 Essay Annual: A Yearly Collection of Significant Essays Personal, Critical, Controversial, and Humorous, edited by Erich A. Walter, and published by Scott Foresman). A few snippets:
I think it is a good thing for the country to have one important university discontinue football. There is no doubt that on the whole the game has been a major handicap to education in the United States. ... The greatest obstacle to the development of' a university in this country is the popular misconceptions of what a university is. The two most popular of these are that it is a kindergarten and that it is' a country club. Football has done as much as any single thing to originate, disseminate, and confirm these misconceptions. By getting rid of football, by presenting the spectacle of a university
that can be great without football, the University of Chicago may perform a signal service to higher education throughout the land. ...
I hope that it is not necessary for me or anyone else to tell you that this is an educational institution, that education is primarily concerned with the training of the mind, and that athletics and social life, though they may contribute to it, are not the heart of it and cannot be permitted to interfere with it. ... The question is a question of emphasis. I do not say that a university must be all study and no athletics and social life. I say that a university must emphasize education and not athletics and social life. The policy of this university is to co-operate with its students in sponsoring any healthy activity that does not interfere too seriously with their education.
In 1954, Hutchins wrote an article for Sports Illustrated looking back at his decision, called "College Football is an Infernal Nuisance" (October 18). He wrote:
"But we Americans are the only people in human history who ever got sport mixed up with higher education. No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment. In some other countries university athletic teams are unheard of; in others; like England, the teams are there, but their activities are valued chiefly as affording the opportunity for them and their adherents to assemble in the open air. Anybody who has watched, as I have, 12 university presidents spend half a day solemnly discussing the Rose Bowl agreement, or anybody who has read—as who has not?—portentous discussions of the "decline" of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago because of the recurring defeats of its football team must realize that we in America are in a different world.
Maybe it is a better one. But I doubt it. I believe that one of the reasons why we attach such importance to the results of football games is that we have no clear idea of what a college or university is. We can't understand these institutions, even if we have graduated from one; but we can grasp the figures on the scoreboard. ...
To anybody seriously interested in education intercollegiate football presents itself as an infernal nuisance. ... When Minnesota was at the height of its football power, the president offered me the team and the stadium if I would take them away: his team was so successful that he could not interest the people of the state in anything else. ... Are there any conditions under which intercollegiate football can be an asset to a college or university? I think not.
One comment from that 1954 essay made me laugh out loud. Hutchins thought that the rise of professional football would lead to the demise of college football.
The real hope lies in the slow but steady progress of professional football. If the colleges and universities had had the courage to take the money out of football by admitting all comers free, they could have made it a game instead of a business and removed the temptations that the money has made inevitable and irresistible. Professional football is destined to perform this service to higher education. Not enough people will pay enough money to support big-time intercollegiate football in the style to which it has become accustomed when for the same price they can see real professionals, their minds unconfused by thoughts of education, play the game with true professional polish.
I should add that I'm a long-standing fan of all kinds of sports, both collegiate and professional. College athletes and their competitions can be marvelous. But the emphasis that so many American universities and colleges place on their intercollegiate athletics teams seems to me hard to defend.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.