Robert Pruter has tackled a massive project—attempting to write a comprehensive history of the rise of high school sports. In large part, he has succeeded. His monograph does a fine job examining the primary themes that shaped how sport has become an essential component of the high-school experience for millions of young students.
Sport entered the secondary educational system primarily through the efforts of students, who began to emulate the programs that college [End Page 694] men had created on university campuses in the Northeast in the late nineteenth century. As the extracurricular activities expanded, faculty and administrators grew concerned that their charges had gone too far. Although progressive educators saw great possibilities in the addition of physical education and, to a certain extent, games to the offerings of their schools, they increasingly felt uneasy at how commercialized and professionalized such activities had become. They feared students were concentrating on sports to the detriment of their education, a fear common among higher-education administrators as well. Many also saw the danger that high schools were recreating the other abuses they saw in higher education, complete with secret fraternities, long-distance travel for games, and overemphasis on winning high-profile championships. Through the creation of city and state athletic governing organizations they began the battle to slow down the enthusiasm for big spectacles and restore the amateur ideal. A slow and difficult process, their efforts only began to bear fruit in the late 1920s. By the 1930s, with the creation of a national umbrella organization that made concerted action possible, they had managed to, for a time, end the most egregious examples of excess that plagued high school sports.
Pruter does a fine job examining how and where sports such as baseball, football, and basketball made their way into the life of the high school. Although a large part of his narrative is devoted to the big three sports, he also surveys how several less-prominent sports, such as swimming, golf, and soccer, grew in popularity as well. One of the most interesting chapters deals with the growth of military sports during and after World War I.
Also interesting is his description of the parallel sporting worlds created by Catholics, African Americans, and others who were not welcomed as part of the mainstream culture. Consideration is also given to the struggle over what sporting opportunities were proper for girls. He effectively recapitulates the story of how girls’ sports experienced a brief rise in popularity, only to be weakened by the largely female physical-education establishment, which argued that [End Page 695] exercise benefitted girls but competition was unhealthy.
Pruter’s narrative is primarily focused on the corridor stretching from New York City to Chicago, and the nation’s two premier cities receive most of the attention, with the West and South receiving scant mention. Still, the issues that he chronicles in our first and second cities were largely the same as those found in other areas, and one volume can only do so much. The work occasionally bogs down in the opening chapters, where the reader struggles to cope with a multitude of unfamiliar high school names. His afterword quickly advances the story of high school sports from the 1930s to the present. This section ably demonstrates that, although individual high schools, state associations, and finally national groups were able to prevent school sports from going down the same road to overemphasis that colleges and universities were traveling, their success was only temporary.
RUSS CRAWFORD teaches history at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of The Use of Sports to Promote the American Way of Life during the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946–1963 (2008) and is currently working on a book about the history of American gridiron football in France.