'College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era'

Are you ready for some football? Or, given that football season is still over a week away, at least ready to read about it?

August 27, 2009

Are you ready for some football? Or, given that football season is still over a week away, at least ready to read about it?

Kurt Edward Kepmer, an associate professor of history at Dakota State University, primed us for this fall’s action on the gridiron by discussing his latest book, College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era (University of Illinois Press). The book charts the expansion of college football from its beginnings as a niche sport to its post-war expansion into its current position as the centerpiece of nearly every major athletics program.

World War II, Kemper explains, had a lot to do with the country's increasing investment in football, as so many in the armed forces began to see the game as an apt training ground for combat. Soon after the war, football became so "quintessentially American" to so many in politics, the armed forces and higher education that it became almost an anchor for national ideals during the Cold War, like "mom and apple pie."

Kemper's book, however, explores how this clout led to many of the game's abuses we still see today, such as paying players under the table or helping them cheat in class. Not all the changes detailed are entirely negative, though. The book also details how football may have encouraged integration among football-crazy southern institutions and encouraged some colleges to take a stand against what they saw as the game's excesses.

Q: There are not a lot of academic studies or histories written about college football. What attracted you to this subject?

A: Well, football is actually kind of growing in terms of academic attention. There’s historically been a pecking order in terms of what historians have been willing to look at; boxing was first, followed by baseball and anything else beyond that was sort of ignored for quite a while by historians. In the past fifteen years or so, football has actually grown in terms of what scholars are looking at. … In particular, I just found a fragment one time in a popular history about UCLA football where they happened to note that UCLA had threatened to boycott the Rose Bowl. I had grown up in Los Angeles as a UCLA fan, and I had never heard this before. It astounded me. The more I went looking, the more and more I found, and it just sort of morphed into this whole project.

Q: Where did the idea come from that playing college football somehow prepared young men for the combat of war, as many in the armed forces and higher education seemed to think after World War II?

A: This is an idea that actually dates to the 19th century. This has been pretty well established by scholars for some time now. The veteran generation of the Civil War, as they grew older, became increasingly anxious about what industrialization was doing to American society and American culture. The native, white Protestant elites were increasingly being elevated into the managerial class. They were not engaging in physical labor. The people who were working in American society were the immigrant class, who native white Protestants were already viewing with some alarm. So, this desire to return somewhere to the frontier experience, some kind of rugged manliness, some kind of violent chance, was something that many felt was necessary. Otherwise, there was this fear that the immigrants would take over.

Football was quickly ascribed with these types of values. Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a famous graduation speech at Harvard in the 1890s where he made some comment that a broken neck was a relatively small price to pay if the response was world leadership and world domination. Henry Cabot Lodge made a similar comment about a race that was fit for headship and command. There were all kinds of cultural insecurities and anxieties wrapped up with what industrialization was doing to American society. Harvard’s football field was originally a donation from a veteran alumnus as a way to commemorate his classmates who had died in the war; it was called Soldier’s Field. So, by the 1890s, there were all kinds of these cultural connections through the violence and sacrifice of the Civil War. But, the connections of linking football to war were not new to the Cold War.

Q: How did the original GI Bill contribute to the world of big-time college athletics as we know it? Also, if there had been no GI Bill post-World War II, would the world of college football look any different?

A: Answering your second question first, I don’t think it would look any different. I think we would have gotten to the same place we did, probably just not as rapidly. As I note in the book, the GI Bill had some unintended but significant consequences for college football.… It inadvertently fueled the abuses of the period that were going to happen away, but it provided a lot of gravy, if you will, to grease the wheels. The government provided full tuition, fees, books and living expenses to veterans through the GI Bill. In addition to that, athletes who went to college who were of scholarship quality got that also. In many places, they were able to use the money from both the GI Bill as well as the money from the university that was recruiting them. Many coaches openly told them, ‘We’re going to let you keep this as cash. This is going to be a recruitment bonus for you.’ Places where they didn’t give both monies to one player, it allowed schools who knew they were getting an athlete on the GI Bill to direct that money to some other player. As a result, you began to see the proliferation of rosters that were stocked with well over 100-120 players that were all on some form of financial compensation. It facilitated the huge bidding wars for talent after the war. It also allowed for schools with many resources to begin to stockpile talent. That’s why you see little difference in the major college programs. The good teams were good year after year. There was so little disparity because so much talent was stockpiled on so few teams.

Q: The Ivy League was created in 1956 to "distance itself from the toxins of big-time football" by restricting or limited the game's accepted practices, such as its ban on athletically related scholarships. Why did so many mock this decision and refer to these institutions as "hotbeds of communism?"

A: Well, the Ivies had a few things that were working against them in terms of this kind of criticism. One was the political perception that the Ivy League schools had been almost a third column in the United States prior to the war. … There was this idea that the Ivy League was a breeding ground for communism. ... But, specific to football, it wasn’t so much that they saw football as directly related to communism. It was that, during the Cold War, so many Americans saw football as uniquely American, as endemically American. So to reject it obviously suggested that you were somehow less than American to many Americans. And so, if we’re already wary of the Ivy League, if we’re already not sure how devoted they are to the cause, and then they reject mom and apple pie, too, they must be a communist. It was an easy linkage for many Americans to make.

Q: In 1961, the faculty of Ohio State voted to not allow its football team to accept a bid to play in the 1962 Rose Bowl, feeling that their stand "vastly improved the university's reputation as an academic institution fit for service in a Cold War political economy." Why did they think this would change the academic statue of the institution in any way? Also, if those same faculty members from 1961 could see Ohio State now, would they like what they see?

A: I’ve actually spoken with one of them on the phone who was a significant player in these events. He’s not really thrilled with what he sees with college football and college athletics in general, and I suspect that most of them would be deeply troubled by what we see today, in particular at places like Ohio State that have not always had a good reputation marrying their academics with their athletics.… One of the things you have to remember is the future of college athletics as we know it today was not assured in the fall of 1961 when these events took place. There was a tremendous desire to see college athletics reformed, which is to say to de-commercialize it. Those reform efforts failed and other scholars have looked extensively at those efforts and why they failed, but there were no guarantees we were going to end up with what we ended up with....

In terms of what the faculty of Ohio State thought they were going to accomplish, I think the shortest answer is to say they were trying to reassert some academic priorities.… These faculty members were not against the Buckeyes having an athletic program. The problem was with the fact that football, in their minds, was the tail that was wagging the dog. So their hope, in terms of denying the Rose Bowl, wasn’t just some sort of childish temper tantrum, but was an effort to try to get people’s attention -- particularly those whose only connection to the university was the football program -- to help them realize that there’s a serious business going on here. Many of these faculty members were colored by the significance of the Cold War. It turns up again and again in their letters and faculty meeting minutes. They really thought that this was the Republic’s hour of need, that this was a period of great peril for the nation and that this was the type of service that university personnel could offer: to study the problems of society. They thought these efforts were really being hindered by the university’s obsession with football. The analogy I make is it that if you take a favorite toy away from a child, then this is how you get their attention.

Q: At institutions like Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama, how did the pressures of being selected for a big bowl game help influence their eventual integration both on and off the field?

A: It became harder and harder, and eventually impossible in the early 1960s, for Southern teams to go to bowl games if they weren’t going to play integrated schools. ... They really lost that capacity by the mid 1950s. There was no way schools were going to pull black players just to play Southern teams, and bowl games were not going to limit themselves to all-white teams because that was just too exclusive, particularly in the West, but also in the North when you look at places like Michigan State. That forced Southern schools to play integrated teams even when they didn’t want to. … In terms of integrating their own rosters, it also became important because it was increasingly apparent that Southern teams weren’t going to be able to compete once they had to play these teams with black players. They were not able to acquire the talent of these players themselves, so they had a hard time winning. It was crucial to forcing them to integrate.

Q: What can your history tell us about the current opposition to the Bowl Championship Series and the possibility of a playoff system for determining the football national champion? Are they any sorts of analogues or lessons to draw?

A: I suspect there are several, but they’re only tangential.… This desire to acquire a consensus national champion is itself an expression of American capitalist culture. If we’re going to say that college football means so much, if we’re going to invest so many Saturdays, if ABC is going to throw out however many hundreds of millions of dollars at it, if we’re going turn New Year’s Day into a national holiday -- everything we do tells us that college football matters in American culture. If we’re going to say that this is some expression of American culture, it seems almost impossible to avoid the ultimate crowning of a consensus national champion, because in a capitalist society, we’re all about identifying winners. The bowl games have always left us wanting, if you will, in the sense of arguing who’s number one. It doesn’t have the same finality that a tournament is going to have. The clamoring for a kind of playoff is an expression of this almost Darwinian component of American culture....

Having said that, I want to say that I’m opposed not only to a playoff but to the BCS itself. I’d be thrilled to go back to the old days when we just had these bowl games and we argue over it in the polls. But, I do think one of the things we can draw out of this is the understanding that football is not some distraction that exists in the ether, unmoored if you will from other aspects of American culture, but that it’s firmly entrenched in American culture. As a result, the argument over things like a playoff has to take into account cultural values, including an inherent almost lethal competitiveness in American society.


Back to Top