The History of Collegiate Sports: an Influence on Society Then, and Now (Fall 2012)

Some forces of history can be seen in the development of collegiate sports, and certain social changes stemmed from that while society showed how influences come from a variety of sources.  Forces of history influence our lives in ways that we may not always realize without deep thinking or investigative research.  As much of what we think about history pertains to politics, war, and prominent influential figures, society has been sculpted by much more than those aspects and the social changes throughout our past can be linked to aspects of less obvious notoriety, such as athletics and recreation.  While we keep that in mind, it is important to understand how social changes can be influenced by forces of history, as well as influence history themselves.  That is how the history of college sports can be fit into the discussion of forces of history influencing society today.

The forces of history that are taken into consideration in a global history type class cover a broad spectrum of factors and can often integrate with each other.  Politics and government include people impacting people through delegation, control, and conflict.  Economics as a force involves wealth and capital, and how monetary elements dictate the progress of change.  Arts and new ideas have a way of showing visible signs of change or influence.  Personal and group identities involve the way classes and their relationships play important roles in the forces of history. The many belief systems that are represented among societies can be seen in the force regarding religion and philosophy.  The role of specific individuals shows how people can use their power or influence over others to create change, no matter how others may feel about their methods.  Science and technology is a force that could be considered mandatory for change, as much of what society uses for progress comes in the form of invention and scientific theory.  With so many of the worlds conflicts involving the control of land, and so much current talk about sustaining our natural resources, the force of earth and environment is an example of how history forces have impact on the future.  Finally, interaction and exchange is the force that pertains to people dealing with each other, whether it’s through coexisting peacefully or under conflict, or simply the means of communication and trade between societies going through change.

With deep enough thought and consideration, those forces can be applied to just about any aspect of history that we feel constituted change.  As that is true in regards to the development of collegiate sports, the focus of this paper will deal with the more obvious ones.   There are key forces of history that can be said to have helped bring that area of the sports industry into existence and then transformed it into the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is today.   

The history of sports has been documented as far back as the cave paintings of ancient civilizations and forces of history ever since then have created progress and change that can give good indication of the societal needs and characteristics of each era.  Much of what we see today in the world of sports is most directly linked to influences stemming from western cultures of 150 years ago.  England is considered the birthplace of modern sports which is no surprise with everything we know about the many influences on the world that came from that region.  The club system, which is still very prominent in England today, was adapted by the U.S. and took on a new identity within our culture.

Personal and group identities is the force that can be attributed to U.S. cultures adapting sports into their societies.  With the amount of immigration that this country used to build its population, so with it came the sports structures of the varieties of people.  The upper classes saw organized sports clubs as forms of separating themselves from the lower classes.  With limited access to social venues to those considered to have certain nobility or wealth, many of the early sporting events took place with an idea of privilege behind them.  As with many other topics of the past, only certain races were allowed to partake and walls of segregation were firmly built within the structure of the sports world.  It took courageous acts of many individuals to break through those barriers.  Some college football teams in the South were able to hold onto some of their racial beliefs until as late as the 1960’s, requiring federal mandates to step in and correct the wrongs.  

With the club structure in the U.S. not gaining the same popularity that it had in Europe, the sports scene here developed leagues and tournaments of various sports instead.  The mixed cultures of the U.S. seemed to embrace those concepts better as they allowed for different groups to participate and did not seem to contain some of the boundaries that the clubs had.  That is how many of the sports in the U.S. gained participation and were able to grow over the years to what they are today.  But it was a combination of the clubs and adapted U.S. customs that led to the introduction of intercollegiate sporting events.  Prominent east coast colleges, during the mid 1800’s, had been utilizing the club idea by offering students the chance to participate in activities such as boating, rugby, and baseball.  A certain idea of the groups of people participating in those activities followed the same ideas that surrounded the rest of society during that time period.  That is, privileged white students had the opportunity to participate.

Earth and environment as a history force comes into play at that point do to the geographical issues these early organizations faced.  With the majority of club style teams organized through colleges on the east coast, it makes sense that any type of contests between them would take place within their surrounding regions.  The documented first competition between to college sports teams is a crew race involving Harvard and Yale, two geographically similar schools.  With modes of transportation at the level they were back then it is easy to understand why there would be limitations to which colleges could compete with each other, but the social status of certain students also figured in to who they were willing to associate with.  Specific sports were also influenced by the regions involved, meaning winter sports took on northern identities as southern colleges would not be aware of their existence.

Even as far back as that first intercollegiate Harvard versus Yale crew event, economics played its part as a force of history.  Since there was no formal organization governing the athletics at the college level at that time, students were the ones running the events, which meant funding was not available as it is today.  Teams relied on their own personal resources and many times competitions came down to which team had better equipment or money for other amenities.  This is one reason why the Ivy League schools were able to build up such strong programs and develop status as athletic “power-houses.”  This differs from today’s college sports where there are rules and regulations that maintain a level playing field between competitors.  But even the historically wealthy Harvard and Yale students had to reach out for help putting together that first event, and in doing so, started a phenomenon which would take off and fuel the college sports industry to this day.  This came by corporate sponsorship as a railroad company took the opportunity to advertise its passenger trains by agreeing to put on the event.  The company supplied funding based on the agreement that the event would take place at a neutral location which would require the teams as well as anyone wishing to attend to travel by means of train.         

As popularity in college sports grew, and more colleges entered the realm of competition, so with them came other factors which have influenced how the industry is viewed today.  Rivalries took shape early on and the competition turned less friendly as students used their teams to establish dominance over each other.  As a history force, these group identities started to influence student’s decisions on what school to attend and are the reason some schools have been able to gain national notoriety.  This situation also caused school administrators to take more interest in what was going on as they began to see the benefits sports could have on school popularity which could lead to more student applications and possible donations.  This led to the hiring of coaches as a way to give their teams better chances to be successful.  In the history of college sports, probably no sport has been impacted more by those influences then football.  College football during the mid 1800’s was nowhere near played the way it is today, but the team spirit, enthusiasm, and fierceness surrounding the game was established early on.

In college football, as the rivalries intensified so did the style of play.  With college sporting events starting out as simple gatherings of students engaging in fun activities meant to promote good health and camaraderie, they had soon turned into turf-wars looked at as violent battles for bragging rights.  As administrators viewed that trend, talk about safety issues and a need for governance began to overtake the previous viewpoint of leaving it all up to the students while keeping sports separated from the educational institutions.  They were forced to get involved as an effort to protect their colleges’ values, but they were also very aware of the revenues the sport was bringing in and they wanted to protect that factor as well.  Rather than following the quick reaction ideas that mostly involved simply banning football all together, colleges started empowering departments and associations to take over and govern the sports programs at their schools.

Politics and government crept its way onto the scene as administrators helped take college athletics into the 1900’s with an emphasis on organization and safety.  In other words, the first versions of governing bodies for college athletics came about due to deaths and injuries on the football field.  By establishing a governmental type agency to handle issues involving athletics, college administrators were giving a concerned society reason to believe changes were being made in the name of social integrity.  Also, it marked the recognition of college athletics as an integral part of college structure while leading to the development of athletic departments within campuses across the country. Those organizations established many of the rules and regulations that are currently enforced by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Unfortunately, since its establishment in 1912, the NCAA has had to face issues that represent some of the uglier sides of what society has to offer.  Countless scandals involving illegal gambling, recruiting violations, and allegations of student athletes cheating in the classroom have plagued college sports for decades and have put the NCAA in difficult situations where they are forced to implement strict penalties on schools.  These penalties often lead to the public viewing the NCAA as the “bad guy” as some members of society sometimes looks past important issues affecting the entire country as they are so focused on winning competitions or national championships.  For example, the recent Penn State incident that included appalling accounts of acts of child rape led to an overwhelming amount of NCAA sanctions against the school.  Those sanctions have crippled the football program and led to backlash by some fans who felt it was appropriate to protest against them.  

Whether the forces of history have positive or negative effects on society seems to depend on the ability of society to accept change.  The changes within college sports developed through years of analyzing the needs of colleges and students and can probably be looked at as ways forces of history positively influenced society.  In the end, change seemed to lead to more efficient systems being put in place.  The rules and regulations that came with those systems help keep the integrity of the effected society at a higher level, and that is an important element to consider as we strive for future progress and continue to learn from history.                         

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