Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/January 1906/Intercollegiate Contests
By Professor JOHN J. STEVENSON,
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
THIRTY years ago, student organizations in the ordinary college were few and on a modest scale, laying no serious burden of any sort on the members. All were purely voluntary and members alone shared in either expense or advantage. Gymnastics were recognized officially in few institutions and such athletic clubs as did exist were for amusement. College boys, like other boys, were not all stalwart, some were even 'slab-chested'; but the testimony of alumni catalogues proves that their tenacity to life was such that on the average they were very good insurance risks.
Conditions in many respects have undergone change. A college, whether the students be scores or thousands in number, seems compelled to maintain one or more teams in athletics, with frequently a glee club in addition—not in any sense for amusement or for improvement, but for contests with similar organizations in other colleges. The expense is serious, but the active members are not expected to defray it, as they 'do the work.' Others must pay the bills, either directly or indirectly, under penalty of being regarded as 'chumps' without college spirit. If means be available professional coaches are always employed for athletic teams and glee clubs. The selected few in the organizations enter upon their work as a business and undergo severe training, which requires close attention and much time—and this not during vacation periods, but during the college year, when study is supposed to demand most of the student's energy. The total money expenditure on these associations must be something stupendous; in some institutions, clamoring for funds, the amount annually handled by teams and other organizations is almost enough to endow a professorship.
These semi-professional organizations, playing or singing for 'gate money' have damaged the morals of college students, even the morale of the colleges themselves. Heads of teams keep close watch of secondary schools, not in search of brilliant students, but in search of boys who have made 'records,' and the entrance of such boys brings joy to the student body. New York is only too familiar with the scenes of debauchery which have followed great contests, as gambling has preceded and accompanied them. It has been charged that college authorities wink at flagrant evasions of laws governing amateur contests and permit 'ringers' to appear as their representatives; but this charge should not be made lightly, for those in responsible place are usually the last to hear of irregularities. At the same time, one who reads the sporting page of a great daily paper and considers the pettifogging disputes of committees representing contesting institutions can not resist an uneasy feeling that the lowering of morale has not stopped with the student body.
College students are quite as willing to yield to temptation as are other young men; some of them indeed, like other men, are ready to go somewhat out of their way to fall into temptation. This much must be conceded; yet no one would regard that as a ground for opening a subway tavern on the campus or for licensing a high-grade gambling outfit in the library building. Students, like others, are apt to show decided disinclination for the work in hand; yet no college official would announce that as justification for encouragement to neglect study. But to encourage membership in college organizations of to-day is to encourage neglect of study. The active members are required to maintain respectable standing in class-room work, though no ordinary man can do this, if the college course be what it is supposed to be, without interfering with his duties, which students in many places evidently think more important than studies. And the college authorities seem to agree with the students, for they permit glee clubs to sing at evening concerts near and far away; they permit teams to undergo training and to absent themselves—all in such fashion that the men must fall behind in their work, if the work be what it purports to be. Yet these men get through and all the students know it.
The incongruity of the conditions affords constant play for newspaper wit, and colleges are regarded popularly as agglomerations of associations with a teaching annex. Colleges receive great attention from the newspapers on pages devoted to sporting news, very little elsewhere except in columns devoted to wit and humor. The coach is much more important than the professor of Latin.
It is impossible for college authorities to escape responsibility for the conditions and all the evils connected with them; any attempt to evade that responsibility is, to say the least, unmanly. Intercollegiate contests are recognized as part of collegiate operations; the students' control is nominal, the institution's control is absolute. Fields for athletic sports have been provided at great cost and they are well equipped with 'grand stand' and 'bleachers'; the gymnasium with all its paraphernalia for gymnastic contests is, at times, almost as imposing as the library building; and the excellence of the equipment is set forth duly in official publications. Qualifications for active participation in the organizations are determined by the authorities who supervise the schedules of engagements and in some instances even the pecuniary affairs.
One may wonder why these college authorities, with power to stop, consent to continuance of the conditions. Many reasons are given in justification, most of them purely evasive and absurd; but there is one argument which is regarded as final and unanswerable. These contests arouse college spirit among the students; they advertise the college; they awake enthusiasm among the alumni; an important contest receives elaborate notice on the sporting page which everybody reads, and the community learns that the college exists; a glee club swings around the circle of a score of towns and proves better for advertising than if the virtues of the college were blazoned on even Gibson posters adorning fifty miles of fences. No one was surprised to read a telegram one day in November last to the effect that the Association of Presidents of State Universities at its Washington meeting tabled 'a resolution—deploring the brutality, and waste of time resulting from the game [football] as now played.'
It may be said that, as a rule, parents are not only willing, but are also gratified, to find their sons prominent in these organizations; but the vast majority of parents know nothing about college work and they confide in the wisdom as well as in the integrity of the men to whom they have entrusted the education of their sons. There is no room for casuistry here. If a school of business should encourage students to glorify it by contests which might lead to paralysis of the right hand, or if a divinity school should provide opportunities for contests which might induce permanent injury to the voice, the press would comment at least unfavorably upon the wisdom of those in control. But technical schools, preparing men to be civil, mechanical or mining engineers, encourage their students to take part in football, though the authorities know that knees, ankles, shoulders and back are likely to be so injured as to handicap the man throughout life. This is no merely academic proposition, as is evident from the list of injuries reported officially in two institutions at the close of the 1905 season.
The recent discussions awakened by the increasing brutality of football tend to divert attention from other and far more important matters. Immense sums of money have been given for educational purposes, many times by men unfamiliar with college conditions but anxious to advance the good of their fellows in the most effective way. One can hardly imagine that they expected their money to be employed in the encouragement of semi-professional organizations and in developing the shirking propensities of young men. One may well ask if colleges are acting in good faith toward their benefactors, toward parents as well as toward the students themselves.
The college course covers four years and much is said about the necessity for shortening it; the technical courses cover four years and much is said about the necessity of lengthening them. The writer believes that the college course should cover four years and that four years is a barely sufficient period for a proper technical course. But what are the conditions? As has been said, the active members of organizations are required to maintain respectable standing as students; during football season, a member of the team can do very little studying, as he has no time; even if he should have time he could have no disposition. His attention is distracted too often by the necessity of nursing bruises, of repairing other damages or of seeking rest for a time in the hospital. Other organizations do not require similar physical racking but equal waste in energy and loss in time causing similar unfitness for study. In large institutions comparatively few individuals suffer in this way, as there is no duplication on teams, but in a small college the same men are on several lists, so that the football hero of November may be a brilliant star in the glee club during winter and a mainstay of baseball in spring. Yet with few exceptions these men make good all their losses and gain their degrees in technical schools quite as well as in colleges. Far be it from the writer to say that the course has been adjusted deliberately to meet the necessities of these champions; but the fact remains that these men to whom study, in the true sense of the word, is practically out of the question during a considerable part of the college year, do succeed in completing the course. It is certain that neither the college course nor that of the technical school requires four years of study for its completion—though it ought to. And it may be remarked parenthetically that this is equally true of the constantly lengthening period demanded by secondary schools for preparation, since in those schools also the advertising value of interscholastic contest is appreciated to its full extent. The requirements for entrance to college courses have been increased so little during the last forty years that a city lad of ordinary ability ought to be ready to enter college by the time he is sixteen years old.
If intercollegiate contests are to be continued as a part of college operations, simple honesty requires that a change be made in the arrangement of studies. Men who wish merely to learn, who have no ambition to shine in athletics, glee clubs or other organizations, should not be compelled to hang around college or technical school for four years. They should have the opportunity to finish their work in proper season and to avoid the loss of a year or of a year and a half at the critical period of life. The college circulars should be very clear in explaining the conditions, so that parents might be able at the outset to decide in which division to place their sons. Those who are willing to have their sons 'get through' as well as those who desire to have their sons receive a generous intellectual training would make their arrangements intelligently and there would be no longer room for complaint.