In the age of mega-conferences, "too big to fail" football, and the bizarre faux-narratives that serve as fuel, it’s worth remembering the story of the University of Chicago: the only powerhouse program to opt out. And it did so at the height of its powers: Chicago, a co-founder of the Big Ten, won a national championship and seven conference titles. Jay Berwanger, a Chicago star, was the very first Heisman Trophy winner and the first-ever draft pick from the NFL.
four years after Berwanger’s Heisman, the powerhouse football program
that produced him ceased playing altogether. It took three decades
before Chicago ventured on the field again. This year, the college
played in Division III against Beloit and Oberlin in a middling UAA
conference that itself will soon end its sponsorship of football.
Call it the legend of Robert Hutchins. When he became president of the University of Chicago, he went so far as to liken himself to a prophet. Why? Because he understood himself as a rare voice of reason by believing that colleges were worth more than their football programs—and then acting on it.
The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, Hutchins found his pulpit in education. The Brooklyn native went to school at Oberlin, where his father taught after moving the family to Ohio, and, after driving ambulances in World War I, he finished at Yale. Hutchins taught a bit, completed a law degree at Yale, got married, became dean of Yale’s law school, and in 1929, he moved his family to Chicago to become president of the university. He was only 30 years old.
Uncowed by being a young leader of a vast and respected university, Hutchins gave 64 public addresses his first year, spoke on the radio, and began what would be a career of writing articles that amounted to education encyclicals: Hutchins was on a mission to restore American universities to their ideals. As he put it, “The purpose of the university is nothing less than to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution throughout the world.”
Hutchins was a believer in the university as place of intellectual pursuit, and he understood extracurriculars—football in particular—as distractions that threatened to turn the campus into a mere lifestyle mall. The model university for Hutchins wasn’t Harvard or Stanford: it was ancient Athens. He wanted to see the Socratic method have pride of place on campus, rather than sports strategy. He likened intellect itself as “The University of Utopia.” Hutchins was quite clear on the attractions of football: namely, profit. All the more reason, according to Hutchins, to separate football from education.
And, after a few humiliating seasons in a row and with a whole lot of charisma, Hutchens actually mustered the will to see this through by eliminating football and, later, all varsity sports. He saw Chicago as a groundbreaking example for other colleges that might have similar ideals, but not yet the ability to enact them. As he wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1954, not long after he left campus:
Other institutions in the Midwest may have wanted to develop programs similar to Chicago’s perhaps even drop football, but they were not as free to act as the university was. They all had limitations of governmental or denominational control; they had a different kind of alumni or a different relationship with them; or they were without the financial resources that the University of Chicago commanded. … The university hoped to prove that "normal" young Americans could get excited about the life of the mind. ….
Hutchins disdained schools that got more attention for their sports programs than their education programs. He pointed out that no other country in the world looked to universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment, and was disturbed by commentators conflating a lackadaisical sports program with a college’s “decline.” The numbers on the scoreboard were easy to comprehend and compare, Hutchins wrote in Sports Illustrated, but discussing the purpose and possibility of American universities was something far more ambiguous—making a conversation that is tempting, for many people, to avoid.
In rhetoric that echoes today’s debates about the NCAA-as-cartel and the recent failures of other Big Ten schools (Penn State, Ohio State), Hutchins argued that the trouble with football comes when a game becomes a business. “The only paying football is winning football,” he wrote. “…You have to get the material, and you have to keep it eligible and happy.”
Too often, Hutchins indicated, when people talked about the benefits of college football, they mean winning college football. Relying on sports—that is, football—to foot the bill for other campus programs or facilities creates a dangerous dependence: what inspires the local community, fans, alumni, and potential donors is not a string of defeats, despite all the purported value of “just playing the game.” And to keep a program in the W column forces colleges to make too many compromises to make it worthwhile. Some, like special treatment of a select few students, it might be able to justify to its community. But others that are plain old rule-breaking—or law-breaking—that leads to the now predictable scandal. As he wrote in the journal Measure, “big-time, industrial football, the symbol of the noneducational aspects of educational institutions, confuses the public mind about what education is and contains elements of injustice, hypocrisy, and fraud that run counter to the high ideals that our educational institutions profess.”
True to Hutchins’ purity of spirit, football wasn’t his only scapegoat. While at the helm in Chicago—he shifted from the presidency to become chancellor in 1945—he worked to eliminate fraternities and religious organizations on campus. He cut the BA program, replacing it with a two-year "generalist" degree with comprehensive exams, but without grades or course requirements. He tried to get the BA degree conferred on those finishing their sophomore year, with those in their third and fourth year of college beginning to specialize in subjects and deemed “masters” students. He personally taught evening classes on the “great books.” Hutchins also attempted a wholesale recalibration of the curriculum along the philosophical lines of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, but was blocked—three times—by the faculty.
In the 1940s, as government contracts poured into universities to support research for the building of the atomic bomb, Hutchins called for peace and joined the Committee to Frame a World Constitution. He also championed academic freedom: when Charles Walgreen, of drugstore fame, protested that his niece was indoctrinated in communism at Chicago, he backed his faculty’s right to teach what they wanted—and then befriended Walgreen, persuading him to fund a series of lectures on democracy.
Many admired his idealism: Carl Sagan, the late astronomer and writer, was among those who praised the opportunity to study under Hutchins’ leadership. But overall, student enrollment and donors diminished. In 1956, five years after Hutchins left campus to head the Ford Foundation, Chicago hired an athletic director to revive football. In true Chicago fashion, Wally Hass got started on reviving the football culture on campus by teaching a class on the rules. He got a club program running. When students protested the future football program as a symbol of the military industrial prospect (it was the Vietnam era), Hass met with them. By 1969, Chicago had put a team back on the field. And the traditional BA program came back too.
But it’s different this time. Chicago, a school of more than 15,000 students, plays against colleges with enrollments that are less than a third of its size. No Chicago players are given athletic scholarships. Stagg Field’s new incarnation seats 1,600, compared to the 55,000 of years past.
Hutchins is an extreme example: he sincerely believed there was no possible way for a football program to be an asset to a university or college. Writing in the mid-fifties, he put his hope in the rise of professional football to take the onus off universities and finally “disentangle sport and higher education.”
Which was, of course, a prediction that was never realized.
While he perhaps wasn’t the prophet he intended to be—schools didn’t leap to follow Hutchins’ lead—his legacy provides a powerful counterpoint to those who are, or were, leading today’s football powerhouses.
Chicago’s story reveals what’s possible: the option that we too often assume is not an option.
“If all the time, thought and effort that university presidents, professors and pressagents have had to devote to this subject could have been spent on working out and explaining to the public a defensible program of higher education we should long since have solved every problem that confronts the colleges and universities of the U.S.,” railed Hutchins.
We might wish Graham Spanier, now-former president of Penn State, had heard these words. Forced out after the child sex scandal that plagued Penn State’s football program, he’s been charged with perjury, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of children. (He’s fighting the charges, as are the similarly accused former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz.)
This past season, both external sanctions and internal penance have pushed Penn State to find a balance between its football program and its role as a public university. It’s in the first of five years’ probation and a four-year postseason ban. Its 112 wins from 1998 through 2011 have been formally vacated. The school was fined $60 million, an average year’s football gross, according to the NCAA, all of which will go toward an endowment to prevent child abuse. Forty scholarships have been lost. On its own initiative, Penn State removed Joe Paterno’s statue on campus. Its football players added memorial ribbons to their uniforms. Penn State alumni partnered with RAINN, an organization that battles sexual violence, to raise more than half a million dollars for victim-support efforts—a campaign that generated so much publicity that RAINN saw a 54% increase in the number of victims who reached out to its hotline.
This is good. More than good: it’s crucial.
But Chicago’s story shows where Penn State and other programs that have lost their compass in recent years might go (you too, Notre Dame). If not by canceling football—which, as a fan, I’d struggle with—then by revisiting the ancient tradition of universities, embodied by Hutchins’ leadership, by developing an honest philosophy for the college project. What, really, is the purpose of Penn State, or Ohio State, or Auburn? What are the ideals that the campus leaders feel are worth risking backlash, as Hutchins experienced?
If football is going to go forward as a fundamental part of the university, without being its most important part, than colleges need more than NCAA rules and symbolic gestures. They need a philosophy: one that inspires, going beyond tradition and—in the true nature of idealism—into the future.