A Very American Madness

Tradition: The extraordinary popularity of college sports is a phenomenon unique to this country and developed out of its 19th-century melting pot.

March 21, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

VISITORS from another country would most likely think that "March Madness" is an appropriate nickname for the NCAA basketball tournament. Not because of the excessive passion surrounding sport - that is endemic to most cultures - but because of the identification of sports teams with academic institutions.

That part is uniquely American.

Oh, England has the annual rowing contests between Oxford and Cambridge, but in no other country do colleges compete with professional teams for the sports entertainment dollar. How did this happen?

An odd confluence of events led to this bond between sports and colleges. Football was the catalyst in a process that involved class, ethnicity and the melting pot.

Murray Sperber, an English professor at Indiana University who has written extensively on collegiate sports, says that in the late 19th century, schools now associated with top-flight higher education - Harvard, Yale and such - had a very different role, more drinking clubs than academic establishments. "Most people were in school for the social networks, not for education," he says.

Into this clubby atmosphere of the schools that would go on to form the Ivy League - an athletic conference - came a form of rugby called American football. It was a hit.

"By 1890, the Thanksgiving Day game between Yale and Princeton, sometimes Harvard, was getting 25,000 to 50,000 fans," Sperber says. "It was considered a great spectacle. The first stadiums that were built in this country were the Yale Bowl and Harvard Stadium."

As these traditions were being established in the Northeast, state universities were growing in the Midwest and the South. Football became a way of proving that they were the equals of the established Eastern schools. "I think people in those areas started going to football games because it was a way for citizens to take pride in their state school," Sperber says.

David Andrews, a native of England who specializes in sports at the University of Maryland, College Park, says Americans have a different relationship with their universities than the British do with theirs.

"In the United States, the community is much more closely affiliated with the university, and it is much more anchored in the community," he says. "In Britain, it is just that university up on the hill. There is not that level of engagement with its locale."

Allen Guttman, a sport historian at Amherst College, notes that schools in America were expected to perform tasks left to other institutions - particularly the church - in ethnically homogenous European countries.

"People came here from all over the world, of different religions, different nationalities," says Guttman, whose history Sports: The First Five Millenia will be published later this year. "School is where they became Americans."

And one way of doing that was by playing American sports.

Sperber says that as immigration changed the face of the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American sports played in colleges stood in contrast to the European sport of soccer that was played by urban clubs filled with the types of people who didn't go to Harvard or Yale or other major universities.

Basketball at YMCA

Basketball, which was invented at a YMCA in 1892, was taken up by urban, ethnic clubs. The name of one lives on - the Boston Celtics. They were once beaten by the Philadelphia Sphas - the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association - who played with Hebrew letters on their jerseys. The Sphas evolved into Philadelphia's first professional team, the Warriors.

Football had already provided a template for collegiate sports. As colleges began organizing basketball teams, they refused to play the ethnic clubs, according to Sperber. "You've got to remember that diversity was not considered a positive value then. Ethnic roots were something you were supposed to lose."

But the growing ethnic populations could not be ignored. Notre Dame football became the bridge that carried them into the college sports narrative. Sperber says coach Knute Rockne turned Notre Dame into the first national college franchise, taking the team to play Army in Yankee Stadium and Big Ten teams in Chicago.

"They used to come to Baltimore to play Navy in Memorial Stadium," he says. "It was a huge event."

As a Catholic school, "Notre Dame broke through the barrier," Sperber says. "Ethnics who had no interest in college football, who never considered going to university, became Notre Dame fans. And not simply Irish Catholics, but Catholics of many ethnicities, and other ethnic groups, including Jews."

The ethnic groups that might have developed a European-style club system in this country now had a team that was beating the established Americans at their own game. They signed on to the college sports model.

Baseball was different

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