By George F. Will, Friday, September 7, 2012
With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.
Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.
The collective activity of team sports came after a great collective exertion, the Civil War, and two great social changes, urbanization and industrialization. This story is told well in “The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football,” by Brian M. Ingrassia, a Middle Tennessee State University historian.