- Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith and the Quest for Athletics and Fitness by Matthew Lindaman
The historical canon of college sports lacks scholarship on the insight and contributions of athletic administrators, while it has a wealth of biographies on players and coaches: for example, John Carroll's Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football (1999) and Julie Des Jardins's Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man (2015). Yet there has been little exploration of those officials who served an integral part of the growth of intercollegiate competition. Historian Matthew Lindaman's Fit for America, a book that explores the life of Major John L. Griffith, is a key contributor to the rise of college athletics and physical education in the first half of the twentieth century.
Major Griffith had a decorated career spanning forty years. He was a coach at Drake University, where he founded the Drake Relays Carnival (later the Drake Relays), the Midwest's largest track and field event. He, along with the help of Amos Alonzo Stagg (University of Chicago), founded the first national championship event (track and field) sponsored by the NCAA in 1921. Griffith was also the first commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference (which later became the Big Ten Conference) from 1922 to 1944, while also serving as president of the NCAA from 1933 to 1937. One of Griffith's major contributions was his creation of the Athletic Journal, for which he served as editor. Lin-daman argues this publication not only helped professionalize the role of coaches and administrators in athletics, but it also brought product endorsement to the forefront. Through the journal, Griffith promoted coaches as the source of honor, fair play, loyalty to their school, allegiance to country, and self-sacrifice. The periodical also created networks among the coaching ranks, as coaches like Knute Rockne, Walter Camp, Glenn "Pop" Warner, and Forest "Phog" Allen wrote articles on tactical approaches and strategies. Such [End Page 423] efforts professionalized the vocation and helped elevate the coaches to expert status across the country, a result Lindaman convincingly attributes to Griffith.
In Fit for America, the reader will see many parallels between intercollegiate competition of the early 1900s with that of college sports today. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, college coaches could not scout or contact potential student-athletes nor offer athletic scholarships to prospective students. As a result, alumni had to appeal to the needs of great talent. In doing so, many schools, like the University of Michigan, sought to keep pace with other educational institutions. The early 1900s serve as a precursor to today's "arms race" in college athletics. Interesting is also Griffith's notion that collegians were "wasting their time playing professional football when they should be focusing on their careers" (91). It was Griffith's goal to make sure students were not solely focused on athletic pursuits as interests in professional football began to expand during this period.
While there was much interest in growing football professionally, many schools had to deal with criticisms around the financial exploitation of college athletes. Interestingly, many of the pressing concerns in the twenty-first century (recruiting violations, illegal payments to players, gambling, unprofessional behavior, and eligibility concerns) were present in the early 1920s. For example, in 1925 schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton took a "sport-for-sport's-sake approach" (104). In many cases, a school's academic reputation was dwarfed by the athletic prowess it garnered. Thus, many institutions of higher education made concerted efforts to focus on making sure their respective academic missions were not lost to athletics.
To develop Griffith's biography, Lindaman relies on a wealth of primary sources. Along with personal writings, newspaper articles, speeches, journal articles, and an array of selections from the Athletic Journal, the author utilizes the archives of numerous schools that were part of the Western Athletic Conference/Big Ten, including Drake University, The Ohio State University, and University...