As I write this article in mid-September, another football season has started. Television is overrun with college and pro football games, pre-game shows, half-time shows, and post game summaries, along with various in-depth shows on football and football-related issues. You can also concurrently log on to the Internet and get running statistics of players and teams during some events. Beyond that, I must confess that I just don't even begin to understand what fantasy football is all about. Sports have become big business and big news. In Indiana, the Indianapolis Colts football game last weekend was interrupted in its concluding minute by a special news broadcast. Coach Knight was fired by Indiana University. College basketball preempted pro football.
Who would have anticipated that professional and college sports would rise to the Christians vs. Lions at the Coliseum? Who would have anticipated that the public would more likely know the name of the Indiana University basketball coach than the name of the President of that distinguished university? Who would have seen the issue, discussed it, addressed it, and put it behind them about 70 years ago?
Why, it was none other than Old Siwash and its president, Albert Britt. Even before Britt was elected President of Knox College, he foresaw the problems of varsity sports in college. He wrote to a friend that Knox should take a position that the purpose of athletic training in college was to give the right training to all men and women of the college. A few years later, he was able to put his belief in practice.
Old Siwash suffered ''the disaster'' of the 1930s when its football team suffered an intercollegiate record of successive losses. It was, by the end of the 1935 season, tied with the collegiate record at 27 consecutive losses. Alas, poor Old Siwash was, arguably, suffering the outcome of Albert Britt's noble position on the role of sports at Knox College. Many of the alumni were not happy and Old Siwash was receiving national attention, but it was on its poor athletic performance, rather than its academic strengths.
In the early 1920s, Albert Britt saw colleges beginning to recruit students based upon athletic ability. While he was in his fourth year as president of Old Siwash, Knox was having a banner year in football. In that year of 1929, generally known for some type of economic crash, Old Siwash was crashing through its opponents on the field. It had the best record in the powerhouse ''Little Nineteen'' conference. It even beat Monmouth College on Thanksgiving Day. Homecoming was a success. Old Siwash had happy alumni and happy students. It was a football powerhouse, probably before the term was coined.
But there was trouble brewing in Old Siwash. Britt felt things were out of hand and getting worse. He expressed these concerns in two articles published in the Knox Alumnus magazine, published in 1929. One of them was named: ''Football: A Business or a Game.'' Britt's philosophy was that the game was held to allow participants to play. It was nice to win but it was important to keep in mind that only one of the two teams could come away with a win. He observed that this overemphasis on winning drove colleges to effectively hire athletes, to suffer academic standards to accommodate the athletic, but perhaps not academic, gifted student. He worried that the emphasis on sports would put having a winning team ''above ordinary, every day academic honesty.''
Albert Britt set a standard for Old Siwash that spelt its athletic doom on the football field but set a standard that perhaps many colleges and universities should evaluate today. Britt concluded, ''We treat an athlete as a man who wants to go to school for an education. That he is proficient in some branch of sport does not affect our feelings nor treatment of him either before he enters or afterwards.''1 Such an attitude may well reduce the building of large football stadiums, reduce the god-like rolls of coaches, and reduce the hypocrisy of so-called amateur sports.
Albert Britt had a Midwesterner's pragmatism toward sports. He had a yardstick by which he felt college sports should be measured. Were they fun for the participants? Did they help to form habits or traits that would be useful in later life? He was skeptical of a country that would so elevate a sport like football to that point that it became ''idolatry of a game.''
Britt had ideas on coaches recruiting that would have made the NCAA blush: ''The function of a coach is to give the best coaching possible to the men in college who come out for the teams. It stops right there. The instant he becomes a field agent for the college, a recruiting officer for the football squad, he may be paving the way to victory, but he is laying up trouble for the college.''2
The infamous record of poor old Siwash suffered by 1935 was noted in an article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled ''Taking it on the Chin.'' Albert Britt was feeling the pressure from the alumni of Old Siwash who felt it was getting the wrong kind of public recognition. But he held his noble ground.
One can find cases in pro football and college basketball, where both the coaches and the players fail to live up to the roll model image that we expect from our overpaid and over appreciated sports heroes. Albert Britt saw it all coming and he saved Old Siwash from the tribulation of athletic success. He wrote: ''His name gradually become more important than the name of the college. Stories are told of his psychological acuteness, of his skill in 'handling men,' of his great influence on the character of the young. He is in demand as an after-dinner speaker, he broadcasts his views on many things, even football, and the president of the college looks with envy at his contract with the newspaper syndicate for the articles which someone else will write Coaches are heroes, no doubt of it No, dear sporting writer, football coaches do not produce character, except the kind they need to win games. Unfortunately, young men possess in abundance the simple virtues of courage, hardihood, intelligence, obedience, endurance. The game demands these, and usually it strengthens them. If character grows on the field, the game and the boys deserve the major credit.''3
Albert Britt saw it all coming. He saved Knox College from the spotlight of being a national athletic powerhouse. Britt saw it all. It was, as they say, clear as Knight and day.
1 Knox Alumnus, Dec. 1929, p. 269, cited in Missionaries and Muckrakers, 1984
2 Knox Alumnus, April, 1929, cited in Missionaries and Muckrakers, 1984
3 ''Taking in on the Chin,'' 1935, cited in Missionaries and Muckrakers, 1984