- College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era
In his 1989 diatribe about college football, The Hundred Yard Lie, Rick Telander quoted an unnamed assistant coach telling players, “Anybody can be a nuclear physicist, all you have to do is read them books, but it takes a man to play football.” This kind of tension between intellectuals and athletes has been a hardy perennial in American college football, but the situation took an interesting turn during the Cold War. Intellectuals displeased by recent strains of anti-intellectualism in American public life may marvel at the public response to a Soviet threat that demanded both physical toughness and serious intellect: brains were something to admire. Nuclear physicists and rocket scientists were household names, celebrated as national heroes rather than denigrated as nerds.
At a time when Cold War Americans wanted—needed—to develop both national intellect and toughness, to make distinctions between Soviet communism and the American way of life, and to present the case for the superiority of the American way, they [End Page 304] attached great cultural importance to football. Cultural interpretations of football are at the heart of Kurt Edward Kemper’s excellent new book College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era. Focused largely on the selection process for the 1962 Rose Bowl—a year in which the expiration of an existing contract permitted organizers unusually wide latitude in selecting teams—Kemper examines the interpretation of football by a range of people, including Ohio State faculty worried that obsession with football was distracting the university from its intellectual priorities, officials at Alabama and Louisiana State who viewed prospective participation in an integrated bowl game through the prism of their commitment to segregation, and UCLA students who opposed the possibility of their football team playing against a segregated opponent. He fits football into prevailing social context, including the free speech movement among students in the University of California system and the Freedom Rides. Some of the great characters of American football play prominent roles, including coaching legends Woody Hayes of Ohio State, Alabama’s “Bear” Bryant, and Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech.
Kemper also considers such issues as the widespread belief that football’s toughening of future soldiers had been an essential contribution to victory in World War II, cheating scandals including those that brought down the Pacific Coast Conference in the late 1950s, and serious proposals for a national college football “super conference.” Kemper also describes worries that Ivy League de-emphasis of football indicated those schools were riddled with communists and homosexuals, and the ultimately disappointed hope that the combined intellectual and physical demands of the Soviet challenge would motivate better academic performances by athletes and end the phenomenon of the “dumb jock” barely getting by.
Kemper tells this story well, with admirably detailed research. The volume is highly readable, and with text running 201 pages it is well-suited to classroom use. Kemper also commendably helps to fill a void in the scholarly literature on the Cold War, which so far has paid little attention to sport despite its large and growing cultural role in Cold War American society.
Readers should be warned about the title, though. Kemper does an impressive job of using the 1962 Rose Bowl as an insight into other important issues, but the title is more sweeping than the book’s subject matter. There is more to be done with the Ivy League’s de-emphasis of football, Southern football powers and integration, the costs of integration to historically black colleges and universities, the varying football fortunes of the service academies, the football downturns at universities like Wisconsin and California that were known for their student activism, the battles between supporters of women’s intercollegiate athletics and the football men who dominated athletic departments (and budgets), and the growing commercialization of college football fueled by the efforts of the University of Michigan’s athletic director Don Canham and the 1984 Supreme Court decision that ended...