College football came to prominence in the early 1900’s as a means to teach young men morality and to serve as a public relations tool, but today it can serve as a distraction from higher education’s primary mission, according to Dr. Brian Ingrassia, associate history professor from Middle Tennessee State University.

Ingrassia, author of “The Rise of Gridiron University,” shared his research during a talk Friday at the Clinton School of Public Service.

Ingrassia said that football emerged as the country’s first major college sport in the industrial era of the late 1800s, when colleges and universities were undergoing dramatic increases in size and competing for students and the public’s attention.

But the sport faced early challenges.

In 1905, 18 men died in games across the country, 15 of them in high school. For a time, West Coast schools such as Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley replaced football with rugby and tried to persuade other schools to do the same. There was talk of banning the game, and at one point President Theodore Roosevelt told representatives of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to clean up the sport.

A 1906 national convention created the forerunner to the NCAA and suggested the legalization of the forward pass to open up the game and make it easier to enforce the rules. After many recruits failed physical fitness tests during World War I, football was seen as a way to help young men get in shape to serve in the military if a future conflict arose.

Ingrassia said the question of paying players is an issue that goes back to the 1920s. The great Red Grange caused a controversy when he left college after his junior year for the pros. Challenged by his college coach about that decision, Grange asked why the coach was paid but not him.

Ingrassia said one of the goals of the game was to bridge the gap between high-brow and low-brow culture and extend the university into the rest of society. However, schools lost control of the product once they allowed paying customers with little connection to the institution to become the primary audience.

In an interview afterwards, Ingrassia said that he actually enjoys watching college football. However, he said that it can detract from the university’s mission. Some of his student-athletes are enrolled in school primarily because they play a sport that takes up so much time that they can’t focus on their studies.

Asked if the sports culture can be annoying for an academic professor, he said, “It is a little bit annoying that so much energy by the students, the administration, is being put into athletics and facilities and things like that when in some cases, other parts of the university may be suffering.”

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.