The author is a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State.
At the turn of the 20th century, college football needed saving. School leaders outraged by the game’s dirty tactics and gruesome injuries were dropping the game or reverting to rugby rules. Reformers were becoming outright abolitionists. Muckraking journalists were exposing football’s vices. Too many promising young men were dying. But college football couldn’t die, and it couldn’t lose what was killing young men: its inherent danger and violence. College football needed saving because the danger and violence needed saving.
Football leaders were the country’s leaders, and they understood the game’s value for training the next generation to run business, the military, education and government. Americans were exceptional and their uniquely American sports like football and baseball proved them to be so. The dawning of what would later be called the American century needed football to grow manly men.
Take Ted Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. During his football career playing at Groton and Harvard, Ted suffered a broken collarbone, broken nose, detached rib, dislocated thumb, sprained knee, chipped teeth and broken ankle. And that was good.
Summarizing TR’s relationship to the game of football as one primarily as parent, and secondarily as President of the United States and football true believer, Ryan Swanson explains the position as this: “I don’t care if you get injured unless it gets to the point where you can’t play anymore or they have killed you.” Swanson, associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico and author of The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete, says that to Roosevelt’s class of men, “exposure to violence was a character-building opportunity for boys.” The line was drawn at death. As TR wrote to his son: “I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not belief in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence.”
Roosevelt wasn’t alone in believing that the right amount of violence was good for the manly soul. Kathleen Bachynski points to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, who, in an 1896 address to Harvard alumni, explained, “The time given to athletic contests and the injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world-conquerors.”
Bachynski, assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College and author of No Game For Boys To Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis, said “Roosevelt embodied the rhetoric of the moment: We hold contempt for you if you take an injury seriously. Boys and young men—future leaders—need to be exposed to this.”
This was the NCAA’s founding moment, when Roosevelt and men of his class intervened in a national football crisis of deaths and gruesome injuries to convince schools to come together to clean up the game, leading to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But as Bachynski describes it, the underlying goal was, “Save the sport, get rid of the catastrophic deaths, but save some element of that risk.” Or as Swanson says, “Round the rough edges off of football so that we can keep playing it.”
Returning to reflect on this history matters, because what has been presented here differs from the NCAA’s account of its origins. The “History” page of the NCAA’s website paints a picture of concerned educational leaders, who, encouraged by the president, came together to establish rules to clean up the game, and suggests the organization’s raison d’être was to “protect young athletes.”
But saving a violent sport by ensuring young men at elite educational institutions do not die and prioritizing athlete wellbeing are two very different things.
Reconsidering the driving impetus behind the creation of the NCAA—shifting our understanding of the goal from saving young men to saving football—is also useful for making sense of the NCAA’s current constitutional crisis and redesign moment. Has “protecting young athletes” been front and center of the mission of the NCAA? Let’s review.
When the NCAA chooses not to mandate summer workout protocol to eliminate heat stroke deaths—a simple leadership role to take, Bachynski says, because heatstroke is easy to prevent, identify, and treat—it is showing us that protecting young athletes is not the mission.
When the NCAA investigates sexual assault with the goal of determining whether the school is providing its athletes an extra benefit rather than whether it is enabling sexual assault, it is showing us that protecting students is not the mission.
When the NCAA, citing “home rule,” has refused to set shared, enforceable principles for academic integrity, gender and race equity, and health and safety standards (including protection from abusive coaching), but has made clear through the constitution and rulebook rewrite process that its schools, collectively, will hold a hard “No Pay” line, it is showing us that protecting athletes is not the mission.
So far, the most recent NCAA “redesign” project, in the form of its recent rewrite of its constitution, appears to be mirroring college football stakeholders’ efforts at the turn of the 20th century: Working to save the thing college sports leaders value—then it was football, now it is “No Pay”—and, in both moments, at the expense of a missed opportunity to better serve young people.
When it comes to the NCAA’s mission, enforcement of regulations—no matter how ridiculous—has always prevailed over athlete welfare. Remember when bagels with (NCAA extra benefit violation) or without (NCAA approved) cream cheese made it into the bloated 400-plus page Division I Manual? NCAA amateurism transformed “regulating the rules” into policing anything remotely resembling “pay for play.”
The last clause of the “Principle of Amateurism” in the NCAA Division I Manual reads: “student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” But, following the NCAA’s logic, who protects athletes from exploitation by their schools, who collectively operate football as a multibillion-dollar professional and commercial enterprise?
The myth of amateurism has collapsed, and if the NCAA wants to stay in charge of college sports once athlete pay becomes untethered from academic performance (Alston decision) or the requirement that it come from third parties (NIL), it had better commit to ensuring guiding principles to serve athletes. Otherwise, college sports won’t need the NCAA anymore. Schools can participate in national championships in other ways—perhaps, for example, in partnership with a sport’s national governing body—and the NCAA has no jurisdiction over the College Football Playoff. (Unlike March Madness and its lucrative TV contract controlled by the NCAA, FBS football and its money stays with schools and conferences.)
Bachynski points to that American exceptionalism founding moment in her explanation for why we haven’t seen substantive change, including the adoption of pay for play. “Whether it’s saving football or saving [amateur] college sports, the project becomes like saving America,” she says. Following this mindset, a critique of college sports warps into a critique of America, and defending the “amateur” status quo—regardless of systemic problems in need of fixing—takes on the feel of a project of patriotism.
Reflecting on the origin story of the NCAA as a way to preserve young gentlemen’s exposure to football violence, Bachynski says, “We have never had an NCAA that prioritizes athlete health and public health, and we have to reckon with that history.”
As Martin McNair—a football father like Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Jordan McNair died a preventable death from heatstroke—poses the question: “How do we pay a kid if we can’t keep him safe?”
In 1905 college football needed saving because danger and violence needed saving. In 2022 we should learn from the past and ask ourselves: If the effort to save the NCAA (through this constitutional rewrite exercise) is simply no more than a doomed effort by colleges to save No Pay (or by NCAA leadership to retain control over college basketball national championships and therefore stay alive), isn’t it time to hold power to account?
Victoria Jackson is a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University. She is a former NCAA champion and retired professional track and field athlete.