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Statist start of college athletics?

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Doug Morris

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A while back I heard someone on NPR say that when the land grant colleges were established, they were established with more spaces than they could fill with an appeal based on academics, so they had to find another appeal to fill the spaces.  They chose an appeal based on athletics.  This started the close association of U.S. higher education with athletics, which looks strange in other countries.

I just did a quick search on Wikipedia to see if I could find anything to back this up, and didn't find anything.

Can anyone shed light on this?


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That doesn't actually sound like a really good explanation, because there are so many different appeals you could use that are not education based. My initial thought for looking into more is why athletics were seen as special or more appealing than anything else. That might have to do with German education at the time, which the US modeled in many ways. 

This was the most useful thing I found in about 15 minutes, but unfortunately it's just a course description. It mentions one or 2 good leads though. https://soe.umich.edu/academics-admissions/course-syllabi/educ-212

Edited by Eiuol
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I am not surprised at the claim, since NPR is sort of famous for making assertions of fact without evidence, but perhaps that have some document that they think supports the belief. Perhaps these sources will help in doing better historical research. This article traces the history of college athletics in the US. As the author notes, college athletics was on the rise well before the Morrill Act was passed. At the time (1840 and onwards), American students were accused (by the British) of being inferior to their British counterparts in manly qualities. Increased attention to athletics was a natural outcome of the growing Muscular Christianity movement. College sports first sprung from the east coast traditional universities, and incidentally was primarily centered around crew, not football, the former requiring water, not land. Once agricultural colleges were well-enough established, they predictably followed suit and like everybody else developed athletic programs.

We can turn to the Morrill Act itself to see why the government passed this law. It was specifically to create agricultural colleges, and then in order to secure passage of the bill after a previous veto, it was expanded to include engineering and military tactics (and was signed into law by Lincoln in 1862). This significantly changed the profile of American university education from a focus on classical studies, eventually leading to what we have now.

If the allegation is true – “we’ve got all this land, what do we do with it?” – we would expect there to be a significant correlation between being a land grant university and having an athletic program. These are the land-grand universities. The hard part, IMO, is distinguishing “developed athletics because of all the land” from “developed athletics because of all of the interest”. The University of Washington is a sports powerhouse, but it is not a land-grant university. Washington State University is a lesser powerhouse, and it is a land-grant university.

I think the idea of universities trying to “fill the spaces” lacks merit, in that there is no need whatsoever for those spaces to be filled. The act was intended to serve as a source of revenue for states to create university systems, and is not just the giving of federal lands so that you’ll have a place to build a university.

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