Educational Ideals, Commercial Practices
The collegiate ideal first connects college sports to colleges and universities during the Progressive Era. To understand why institutions continued to field sports programs, despite their inherent risks and highly visible challenges, is best viewed from the perspective of higher education. Ronald Smith in Play-by-play: Radio Television, and Big-Time College Sport, suggests that anyone seeking to understand higher education “should learn the place of college athletics” (Smith, 2011, p. 1).
While the popular account of the commercialism in college sports is attributed to the first crew race between Yale and Harvard, college sports also “reflect the commercial aspect of America’s free enterprise system” (Smith, 2011, p. 2). Higher education institutions increasingly sought students to buoy enrollment and resources they bring to keep their doors open during the expansion of higher education in the Progressive Era. Historically athletics programs have turned to this same free enterprise system of the American economy for financial resources.
The earliest models of college sports were treated by institutions as important but independent. While institutions needed the visibility that athletic programs offered, institutions themselves were unable to or unwilling to fund athletics with resources out of educational budgets. Yet, institutions also expected a high level of performance from their athletic programs (Smith, 2011). Because of reluctance or inability to support their athletic programs with the resources that would be needed to foster that success, athletic programs of the 1920s turned to outside sources such as alumni donations, sponsorship, and broadcasting deals.
The idea that the athletic program would fund itself was also coupled with another expectation—that the athletic enterprise would be amateur. “We are told by the college officials that we must conduct or sports...along amateur lines, but we must finance them along lines that are purely commercial and professional” (Smith, 2011, p. 4). Institutions set up the educational-commercial predicament early, putting high value on an amateur athletic model funded by commercial practices. These expectations were among the concerns raised in the first Carnegie Report on college sports. “It is under this régime that college sports have been developed from games played for the glory and, too often, for the financial profit of the college” (Savage, 1929, p. x). The early expectations and uses of college sports solidified several values of college sports. The purpose of sports would be educational and amateur, but conducted with professional athleticism and by commercial means.
Furthermore, as Howard Savage first remarked his 1929 report to the Carnegie Foundation, college sports have developed under this régime, from the college enterprise, along with higher education’s growth from colonial colleges to universities (Savage, 1929). Through this higher education history, even the institutions themselves have struggled to build and sustain their own educational ideals without these same practices that leverage sources of commercial support. Narratives then and now that call for a return to educational, amateur sports, are largely impossible (Suggs, 2005). There was never a time when the campus was singularly educational or college sports were simply amateur.
The so-called business practices necessary to grow enrollments and support programs that led to steady prosperity and growth in American higher education, is often overlooked in the commercialism of college sports. Not only have college athletics departments always ‘sold’ themselves to the public, institutions have thrived when succeeding at this practice as well. The ways that athletic programs have sold themselves to the public has been in the pursuit of athletic ideals and institutions have done so out of the pursuit of educational ideals. The context of the American economy plays an important role in these practices (Bok, 2003; Smith, 2011).
In the 1920s the American economy influenced the ways in which radio and newspapers delivered resources to athletic programs and visibility to institutions (Smith, 2011). Journalists and newspaper publishers covered college football to increase their daily circulation. First by creating sports sections, then by moving the spectacle and rivalries of college football to the front pages in the days before games (Thelin, 2015; Oriard, 1993). The newspaper creation of the sports page, then subsequent promotion of college football sold papers and game tickets. The technology innovations to produce daily newspapers in the late 19th century created swift distribution of high-quality news and photographs on a large public scale. Initially this early form of mass communication did not include daily sports news (Thelin, 2015; Oriard, 1993). The emergence of sports in American life and a growing readership prompted news publishers to integrate college sports into the daily news. This move to sell papers served to further cultivate interest and funds for programs and institutions. By the 1920s, radio and television took a similar approach. Rather than broadcast games on their own university stations, the non-profit local radio and television outlets, institutions allowed the use the commercial stations to broadcast football contests (Smith, 2011).