The Century in Sports

The peculiar institution of intercollegiate athletics has existed in one form or another at Penn since well before the start of the 20th century. It is a rich history that has reflected the seismic shifts in the role sports have played at the collegiate level and in America at large, and a journey through the pages of the last 100 years of the Gazette reveals, more than the ephemera of the triumphs and defeats on the field of play, the ongoing redefinition of what that role is and what it should be. From the century’s early decades, when control of athletics moved from the alumni to the University proper, to the decision to continue athletics during wartime, to the national successes of Penn’s football team and the subsequent sea change in philosophy under the Ivy Agreement, to the clash with the NCAA over student-athlete eligibility, many of the debates revolved around issues that confront college sports in 2002.

The Gazette did not shy away from reporting and commenting on the controversies and shifts in power that marked the sports century at Penn. Through changes in format, frequency, and tone, the magazine continued to serve several functions: as chronicler of athletic deeds, booster, critic, defender against attacks (real or imagined) from the mainstream press, force for change, and, not least important, as an outlet for generations of alumni to fulminate on such topics as the need for a University-sponsored course in Golf 101 or those ghastly uniforms that “made the marching band resemble the Salvation Army.”

In the early days stories carried no bylines, but by the mid-1920s a sports-publicity apparatus had been put in place by the University that produced regular articles for the Gazette. Game stories contained no quotes—Penn’s University Council on Athletics had barred players and coaches from granting interviews—and seldom was written a discouraging word unless to denounce accusations by rival schools or the daily tabloids.

The gloves came off in the 1960s as writers like Frank Dolson W’54, Alan Richman C’65, and Bob Savett C’70 WG’81 took unflinching looks at the University’s overall athletic program. Longer, more personal stories came in vogue in the 1970s, symbolized by Patricia McLaughlin’s account of skating with the fledgling women’s ice-hockey team and Savett’s “Anatomy of a Melting Pot,” which explored the racial, religious, and ethnic mix on the 1973-74 men’s basketball team.

Following are some of the high- and lowlights of the last 100 years of Penn athletics, as reported in the Gazette:

The Early Years

“In many of our universities at the present time, thoughtful and liberal men among the graduates and faculty are asking themselves the question: Are we not going too far, in our headstrong American way, in the matter of intercollegiate contests?”

These words of Harry C. Thayer C1892 (a former Penn fullback, who nevertheless agreed that, yes, we were) appeared in the December 31, 1904, edition of Old Penn, the precursor to the Gazette. They struck a note that would ring throughout the 20th century in debates over intercollegiate athletics. His concern centered on football, which in the early years of the century was a savage, brutal game that routinely produced broken bones and, on occasion, fatalities. Though none of the latter occurred at Penn, the magazine’s 1903 game account of the Quakers’ 42-0 victory over Cornell in the annual Thanksgiving Day game concluded, “It was a fierce game, in which injuries were plentiful, the Cornell men having the worst of it.” A 1905 game description recounted how “the players on both teams lost control of their tempers, became overexcited, and the results were a series of penalties for slugging, holding and other unfairness.”

Old Penn supported the national rules changes and other reforms aimed at cleaning up football, and in an augury of sorts, the University took a leading role in pushing for change. As early as 1905, Penn’s Committee on Athletics mailed a memo to “1,500 educational institutions throughout the country,” according to the magazine, calling for rules that would ban recruiting and require all team members to be actual students and in good standing academically. In an era when mercenary players hopped from one school to another and were routinely paid for their services, the headlong collision between the ancient Greek ideals of education of mind and body and the baser elements of the new American sports culture was nearly audible. As the Gazette noted in 1912, “Our definitions of amateurism and professionalism, copied as they are from foreign sources, cannot be readily adapted to the American college student, and a fairer and more reasonable definition would eliminate a vast amount of hypocrisy.”

Athletic Department Perestroika

From the first days of organized athletics at Penn in 1873, sports were funded and overseen by the Athletic Association, an alumni group that made regular appeals to its members through the Gazette. As the move toward universities’ exerting greater control over their athletic departments gained momentum nationwide, however, in 1917 Penn placed athletic oversight in the hands of the newly-created University Council on Athletics, which was composed of faculty and students as well as alumni. The Athletic Association still held the title to Franklin Field, but the Council would “control and manage all athletic sports, contests and exhibitions and determine the eligibility of participants therein, receive and disburse all moneys arising therefrom” as well as employ all coaches.

The Gazette reported the developments faithfully, but cautioned on January 6, 1922, that “there are, however, a great many alumni who are still intensely disappointed because the creation of the University Council on Athletics ... practically severed all connection between the administration of athletic sports and alumni membership in the Association ... Some even go so far as to say that until it is revived Pennsylvania cannot expect to regain the honored position her athletic teams, especially in football, held at one time.”

The dire predictions failed to materialize, as the football team never dropped below .500 in the 1920s and had a three-year stretch in which it lost just four times in 29 games.

Photo: Football team, 1906



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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/02/02