In the early 1930s, fans of intercollegiate football had reason to fear that the game was on the verge of extinction. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching had recently published a withering critique of college athletics. It condemned the win-at-all-costs ethos that encouraged illegal recruiting and subsidization of athletes, alumni slush funds, outsized coaching salaries, and the lowering of academic standards to accommodate students with more brawn than brains. Close on the heels of the Carnegie report came the Great Depression, which forced universities to downsize faculty, curricula, and salaries.
Already under attack, athletics might well have been viewed by academic administrators as an expendable frill. Instead, college sports not only survived but emerged even stronger on the other end of the decade. How that happened is the subject of Brad Austin's meticulously researched book, Democratic Sports: Men's and Women's College [End Page 693] Athletics during the Great Depression. Austin argues that athletics flourished in large part because administrators and coaches positioned sports as an antidote to the forces threatening democracy.
In an era marked by cultural and social unrest and economic turmoil, socialism and communism found new adherents in the United States, especially on college campuses. University athletic officials countered the leftward drift with an ideology of sports. They maintained that the gridiron could impart lessons about democracy and capitalism as surely as classroom instruction. Football instilled values such as hard work, perseverance, and competition—values shared by captains of industry.
Using men's athletics to brand their institutions, universities embraced commercial strategies to market this "American Way" to the public. Indeed, intercollegiate football provided a communal experience that extended far beyond the campus. Working-class citizens who had never attended college became part of an "imagined community," united by shared loyalty to the football team and by extension, to the university.
Women's athletics were also promoted for their American values, albeit through a rhetorical lens that defined democracy as equality of opportunity for all. Austin explores the broad consensus in the early 1930s that female athletes should suppress competitive instincts and focus on cooperative play and companionship. This ideal aimed to both avoid the corrosive influences plaguing men's athletics and to preserve a status quo that valued alpha males and nurturing females. By the end of the decade, however, a new generation of female administrators had taken the helm of physical education programs and demonstrated that the competitive instinct knew no gender boundaries.
The wealth of detail in Democratic Sports reflects how long Austin has been at this. The book emerged from his PhD in 2001 from Ohio State, and the case study approach is evident. He has delved deeply into the archives at five representative universities: Ohio State University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of [End Page 694] Texas, the University of Maryland, and the University of Tennessee.
Austin has become perhaps the foremost scholar of 1930s athletics, yet this is no dry academic read. Although the first chapter is laden with figures—university budgets, state appropriations, faculty salaries—that contextualize the climate, he ultimately takes readers on a drive through the decade that underscores the rich scenery of the Depression era. A young Thurgood Marshall challenged the University of Maryland's exclusion of African Americans from its law school. An Ohio State group, inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, raised money to help finance the football stadium. An intramural women's track event at the University of Tennessee involved running while threading a needle in a display of "physical fitness and domestic dexterity" (p. 120).
Austin's concluding chapter deals with universities' embrace of commercialism as one lifeline out of the depression. In doing so, he reminds us that the 1930s deserve our scrutiny if we are to understand the foundation of modern intercollegiate athletics.
KATHLEEN M. O'TOOLE teaches mass media history at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on early educational radio...