Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/College Athletics I





VERY few persons will dissent from the proposition that students should exercise their bodies. If called upon to state the amount and kind of exercise needed, most people would be at a loss to prescribe these particulars, and would content themselves with the usual generalities about its being essential to health; that it should be so regulated as to be recreative, but not so excessive as to be exhausting. There are numbers of intelligent men who, even assenting to these generalities, never wake to the real truth of them till a violated law of nature inflicts its penalty in their own ill health. However, we must assume that we shall have the assent of sensible people if we start with two principles: first, that young men who study need exercise; and, second, that exercise, to be beneficial, should be regular and systematic. If we can show that college athletics supply this need to quite a large body of students, and supply it regularly and systematically, we may secure a patient consideration of their good effects long enough to add a discussion of their accompanying evils. In this discussion we hope to prove that the evils have been exaggerated; that they are not so great as would be the evils of a college-life without a system of athletics; and, lastly, that such evils as do inhere in the present system are capable of remedy.

In order to give foundation and strength to our belief in the benefits of physical exercise, let us consider what it does, and how really necessary it is. Though we admit the truth of all the wise sayings with regard to a "sane mind in a sound body," we are yet too apt to regard the sound body as a mere accident of inheritance or environment. So we read the proposition as an hypothetical one, viz., "If the body is sound, the mind will be sane." Few but physicians read it as indicating a connection between body and mind, by means of which we can make, or help to make, a good healthy brain by making a good sound body. In the fact that the brain always seems to direct the body, we are prone to forget that the body carries the brain and feeds it with its own life. If the body has good blood, the brain will have good blood also. If the body does not furnish good material, the brain will do, according to its capacity, poor work, or will not work at all. That many men of weak bodies have done good brain-work in their day is true, but many such men have been hindered from doing better work by physical weakness. Moreover, can any man say that the work done would not have been greater or better if the men doing it had had better bodies? After the body has attained maturity, most men recognize the connection and sympathy between mind and body. During the time of growth, however, this interdependence is often taken into small account.

There are two kinds of brain-work—one which we may very properly call body brain-work, and the other mind brain-work.[1] Most people, including a great many educators of youth, consider mind brain-work to be the only kind of brain-work. But body brain-work is quite as essential to the healthy existence of the brain, and really comes first in the order of brain-growth. The child, too young to know anything except its bodily wants, and conscious of them only when the denial of them causes pain, develops brain every time it makes a will-directed effort to grasp the thing it wants. The movement of its hand is as necessary to the development of its brain as the guidance and government of the brain are to the growth of the hand. What is true of the hand is true of the other bodily organs whose motion is under the control of the will. They and the brain are developed by reciprocal action. Interfere with this body brain-work in childhood, or at any period of growth, either by repressing it or by diverting from it too much vital energy to mind brain-work, such as is involved in the acquisition of knowledge, and you not only stunt the body, but also enfeeble the brain, by depriving both of their proper growth. The worst feature of such interference, at such a time, is that the evil then done can not be remedied, and the power lost to body and brain can never be regained.

Care to guard against this interference is all the more necessary in cases in which the brain is large or sensitive. Now, will any man say that at the time of life when young men come to our American colleges, when, in fact, all their bodily organs are approaching maturity, this body brain-work ought to cease, or can, without danger, be neglected? Is it not most essential that at this very period the reciprocal action between body and brain should be steadily maintained, in order that both should be able to endure the strain put upon them by the various stimulants of thought and feeling to be found in college-life? The great pressure brought to bear upon them is toward conscious cerebration. Acquisitions of knowledge, scholarships, the ambitious desires of parents, and prizes, all incite them to neglect body brain-work, under the mistaken impression that time given to that is time lost to the other. Many a fine scholar has left college with great honors, to experience in his subsequent career the serious results of the mistake made in college, and has discovered, often too late, that a vigorous body to carry his brain is more essential to success in life than a well-trained brain full of knowledge but lacking a strong body from which to draw its nourishment and strength.

Again, exercise, to be beneficial, should be regular and systematic. To be most beneficial it should be in the open air. The oxygenation of the blood is not the least important effect of exercise. In consequence of the reciprocal action of mind and body, to be as beneficial as possible it should be accompanied by mental occupation. The mind should be interested in the exercise while the body is engaged. How shall all these requisites of the best kind of exercise be secured? First, a regularly set time for exercise; next, a fixed amount of time devoted to it; then a place where the lungs should breathe fresh air; and, lastly, a kind of exercise which should engage the mind as well as the body. By the present system of college athletics these requisites are met, if not perfectly, at least as well as it is possible for them to be met. If the millennium had come, and all men, and especially young men, would do right, without any compulsion, and simply because it is the only thing to do, we might come to a settlement of these important particulars of exercise for our students. The regularity of the exercise, and the amount of time devoted to it, could easily be arranged. There could be no question as to the expediency of taking it in the open air. But how secure the co-operation of the mind? How make bodily exercise interesting, so that a man will desire to take it and will take it with gladness, not making a burden of it, and not considering it as a duty merely? That is the real problem to solve, when we set ourselves to the task of prescribing the right kind of exercise. Very few can be induced to exercise from a sense of duty. The majority go without it till they suffer illness from the want of it, and then prefer a doctor's remedies to Nature's. Here athletics accomplish the greatest good. They do furnish a mental stimulus. They set up an object to be striven for, and an ideal of strength or skill. The object is honor—honor of no great worth, perhaps, but still honor to the student-mind. In boating, the object is a victory over a crew of a rival class or a rival college. In lacrosse, base-ball, and foot-ball, besides working for the ultimate object of the championship, the mind of the player has continual occupation in the game itself. To secure a victory in any of these sports, good brains in the players contribute quite as much as good muscles. In fact, it is the skilled muscles rightly directed by good brains which win, and not the players most skilled in the use of their muscles. Mind as well as body has to be considered by the successful captains in the selection of their men. Then there are minor considerations which keep students in steady training, and help to induce more men to work than finally appear in the great contests, such, for instance, as the ambition to secure an office or position in one of the university organizations, and thus an honorable standing as a college man. These various considerations not only accompany the men into the field or at the oar, but also, when they are prevented from taking out-door practice, send them into the gynmasium to prepare for the later work.

The following brief account of the exercise taken by the students is offered in order to insure a better understanding of the system of college athletics:

Almost as soon as the college opens in the fall, the various class nines begin their games for the college championship. At the same time the class crews, the foot-ball and lacrosse teams put their men into training. This means regular exercise in the open air from four to six weeks for about one hundred and forty men. Quite as many more are benefited, some by actual participation in the games, in order to furnish opponents to the teams in practice, and others by training for the Athletic Association contests. After the class base-ball championship is decided, and the Athletic Association meetings have terminated, fewer men exercise. The interest of the college then centers in the Foot-ball Elevens, one selected from the whole university, and the other from the freshman classes of the academic and scientific departments. To give these teams practice, all the college is urged to go to the field and play against them; and though, of course, the invitation is not accepted as extensively as it is given, yet it does induce quite a large number of men to exercise. But this is not the only good effect of the existence of these teams. Catching the enthusiasm of the sport, often the men of different dormitories and of different eating-clubs send out teams for matches. The foot-ball season terminates at the thanksgiving recess. The two or three weeks intervening between this recess and the winter examinations see very little exercise taken by the students, except by the few who regularly use the gymnasium. Immediately on the opening of the winter term activity in athletics manifests itself again. The captain of the University Crew, the captain of the University Base-ball Nine, the captains of the different class crews, and the captain of the Freshman Base-ball Nine, call for men who wish to try for positions on these organizations. The candidates are put into regular training in the gymnasium, while the season prevents exercise out-of-doors. Nearly a hundred men come forward, who are actually in training for at least one hour a day. They are required to live rightly in all respects. Each man is bound to avoid excesses of all kinds. The force of a public opinion created by the sight of these men attending to their physical development, and living according to laws and rules, acts upon the college world to encourage regularity of life and obedience to authority. It is a moral power in the community. As soon as the season permits, the men are sent out-of-doors. The crews take their seats in the boats. The nines take their positions in the field. The spring regatta terminates the practice of the class crews, but, as that event occurs about three weeks before the June examinations, and five weeks before the close of the college year, it does not leave the young men a long time without exercise. The University, Consolidated, and Freshman Nines, the Lacrosse Team, and the University Crew (with sometimes a second eight), continue their practice much longer, some of them stopping work only after the close of the college year.

Now, it may be said that the writer has only shown that regular exercise has been secured during a few weeks of the first term to one hundred and forty men at the most, and during the whole winter term to one hundred men; and in the spring and summer to one hundred men part of the term, and to half that number during the whole of the term. Granted. But there are other organizations which induce men to exercise. The Athletic Association has already been mentioned. This gives three exhibitions; one during the winter or early spring in the gymnasium, and two in the open air, one in the summer and one in the fall. The Dunham Rowing Club has a membership of forty-four men. Then there are canoe clubs, tennis clubs, and gun clubs. It would be putting the estimate too low to say that at least half of the undergraduate members of the academic and scientific departments get quite a regular amount of systematic out-door exercise from, or in consequence of, the present system of college athletics. This activity, too, has been mainly the outgrowth of the attention given to boating and to base-ball. They had the first regular organizations, and the others have taken pattern from them. It is no argument against the system that all the members of the university do not take advantage of it. The need of exercise is met, and opportunities for regular and systematic exercise are given, with inducements to take it, which do act upon at least half of the membership of the two departments most in need of it. The system might do more good if time were set apart by the various Faculties for the purpose of encouraging exercise, but in considering the system it must be borne in mind that it has grown up in a continual struggle for existence; and, until within a few years, without either help from graduates or favor from the college authorities. But, in view of the good already done by it as a voluntary system proceeding from the students themselves, no candid man can maintain that it should be put aside without a fair consideration of its merits. In addition to those already mentioned, we claim for it the following advantages:

1. The college is sending out a better breed of men. College athletics send their healthy influence into the schools, and in them consequently increased attention is given to physical development. Thus the material coming from the schools is improved. In college this material is better preserved and better developed under the present system of athletics. More well-trained minds in more forceful bodies are graduated from college than in former years. What President Eliot says on this subject is as applicable to Yale as to Harvard: "It is agreed on all hands that the increased attention given to physical exercise and athletic sports within the past twenty-five years has been, on the whole, of great advantage to the university; that the average physique of the mass of students has been sensibly improved, the discipline of the college been made easier and more effective, the work of many zealous students been done with greater safety, and the ideal student been transformed from a stooping, weak, and sickly youth, into one well-formed, robust, and healthy."

2. The system of college athletics gives opportunity for the development of certain qualities of mind and character not all provided for in the college curriculum, but qualities nevertheless quite as essential to true success in life as ripe scholarship or literary culture. Courage, resolution, and perseverance are required in all the men who excel in athletic sports. The faculty for organization, executive power, the qualities which enable men to control and lead other men, and again those other qualities by which men yield faithful obedience to recognized authority, are all called into action in every boat-race, in every ball contest, and through all the preliminary training. In athletics the college world is a little republic of young men with authority for government delegated to presidents, captains, and commodores, and loyally supported by the resources and bodies of the governed. Is the system not worth something as a means of preparation for the responsibilities of life in the larger republic outside the campus?

3. The system is conducive to the good order of the college. It conduces to good order in furnishing occupation for the physically active. There are men in every class who seem to require some outlet for their superabundant animal life. Before the day of athletics, such men supplied the class bullies in fights between town and gown, and were busy at night in gate-stealing and in other pranks now gone out of fashion. A number of them were dissipated men, and had to diversify the monotony of their class-room life by a spree and a row. Many such men, under the present system, find occupation for all this activity in regular training. A man who goes into training can not go on sprees, and must economize and systematize his time in order to both study and train. Having steadied their nerves by hard work of the muscles, many such men settle down to study and often make fair scholars. Any instructor who has kept track of the ways of college during the past fifteen years can not fail to be struck by the decreasing number of the really great disorders, by the mildness of those which remain, and by the increasing regard on the part of the students for college authority, college property, and for the rights of fellow-students.

The system is conducive to the good order of the college, because it furnishes a healthy, interesting topic of conversation out of study hours. Dr. McCosh has been reported to be alarmed by the very absorbing nature of this topic of conversation. The reporter makes him say, "When one walks across the campus, the conversation he overhears bears no relation to the science and knowledge which we come here to pursue, but it is this game and that game, this record and that record." Does the gentleman suppose that, if there were no athletics, members of the college who meet one another on the campus would fall into conversation on the absorbing questions of science and knowledge? The college world is like the world in general, in that its inhabitants, when off duty, find their recreation in talking of other subjects than those of regular business. The campus is the place where the students discuss other themes than those of the class-room, for the reason that they come together on the campus for diversion. They rightly regard the study and the lecture-room as the places in which the themes of knowledge and science are properly considered. It is not to be expected, neither would it be wise nor desirable, that young men should spend all their time in thinking and talking of their studies. Since they must have something else for their leisure hours, it is well for them to have some such healthy topics of conversation as the athletic sports furnish. They naturally seek some excitement with which to vary the monotony of recitations and lectures. Their manly contests supply this want, and prevent many a man from looking to dissipation and disorder as reliefs from the daily drudgery of the study and the class-room.

Again, the system conduces to good order in its effects upon class-feeling. It acts upon this class-feeling in two ways: first, in the contests between class organizations furnishing a safety-valve for it; and, second, in the university organizations tending to moderate it. The esprit de corps of a class is not bad in itself. It often furnishes a motive to combined action which can be made powerful for good. In the contests between the class organizations, and in all the athletic exhibitions of the college, there are legitimate opportunities for the free play and development of this feeling. But it is possible for it to become excessive, so that a class, as a body, may have a dangerous feeling of actual enmity to another class. It is this excessive class-feeling which is the active power in the disorders between classes. It is at this point that the influence of the university organizations acts as a check. Since these organizations are composed of men of all classes, it is impossible for all college to be enthusiastic for its crew, team, or nine, without a common sympathy binding all the classes together. Moreover, it is observable that the time of the year when the athletic contests are not absorbing the attention of the college is the very time when the disorders between classes and the persecutions of freshmen are most prevalent. Besides, the captains of the university organizations command their men to keep out of disorders, because they know that they might lose their services if these men came under the discipline of the college authorities. The writer has seen the captain of the University Foot-ball Eleven personally restraining his men from participation in a "rush." Formerly it was the strong men who incited and took the chief part in disorders. Now all their interests and all their efforts are against them.

4. The system furnishes to instructors an opportunity of meeting their pupils as men interested in a common good, without the chilling reserve of the recitation-room. It does not require a great effort to be a spectator of their contests. An interest in the contestants is a very natural result of witnessing their struggles. The college officer who gives a little of his time even to the boys' play soon finds his sympathies widen, and, by learning from actual observation how young men feel and think, becomes able to deal more wisely with those under his charge, from a fuller knowledge of them.

5. The power of the athletic contests to awaken enthusiasm ought not to be held of small account. The tendency of academic life is toward dry intellectualism. However desirable such a tendency may be for those who are training to be investigators, there can be no question that it is lamentable for a young man to begin life without enthusiasm. It is not too much to say that in many a student, while passing from freshman to the end of senior year, this spirit would die for lack of culture were it not for athletics. There is training for it in every contest witnessed. These contests affect graduates as well as undergraduates, and go far toward accounting for the warm interest which the alumni of all of the larger colleges feel in their Alma Mater.

6. The system of athletics, by its intercollegiate contests, brings the students into a wider world. They are no longer "home-keeping youths," "with homely wits." They measure themselves by other standards than those they find in the limits of their own campus.

In the next paper the writer proposes to discuss the accompanying evils of the present system of college athletics, and to present some statistics bearing upon the general subject.

  1. Dr. Clarke, "Building of a Brain."