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Penn State, Sandusky, and Paterno: When did football kill student activism?

It wasn't always like this. Throughout college football's history, students and players have boycotted games in protest of evils like segregation and racism. But what about alleged child sex abuse? Now, students seemed lulled into thinking that 'king football' must continue, at all costs.

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Consider Columbia undergraduate Reed Harris, who published a whole book in 1932 – entitled, fittingly, “King Football” – that blasted the college sport as a “semi-professional racket.” In lines that could be lifted from any newspaper exposé today, Harris complained that coaches made extraordinary salaries and players had no time – or incentive – to study. Most of all, though, Harris asked why universities should be involved in the enterprise at all. “What, in heaven’s name, has the possession of a winning football team to do with the main business of a college or university?” he wondered.

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Harris was eventually kicked out of Columbia, for publishing an article criticizing its president. Angry students staged a one-day boycott, which in turn triggered physical attacks from athletes who supported Harris’s expulsion. It was, one journalist quipped, “the first time in the history of American education that football players were observed fighting to get into class.”

In the 1960s, a new generation of student activists again questioned universities’ emphasis on football. As the war in Vietnam escalated, they especially took aim at the violence and brutality of the game. In a typical statement, one student group in Berkeley declared its “opposition to pig Amerika’s death culture as epitomized by gladiatorial football clashes.”

Students also condemned racism within the sport itself. Here players often took the lead, belying the stereotype of the conservative “jock.” Across the country, African-American footballers staged sit-ins and boycotts to protest bigoted remarks by coaches and preferential treatment of white athletes. They frequently found support among the student rank-and-file, which was happy to forsake a few Saturdays of football in the service of a larger cause.

How distant all of that sounds in today’s passive college climate. Sure, students have participated in recent “Occupy” demonstrations and in rallies against tuition hikes. But put all of those protests together, and you still won’t have as many kids as turned out on the streets of State College, Pennsylvania in support of Joe Paterno on the night he was dismissed.

Shame on them, and also on the universities that are supposed to educate them. A half-century from now, nobody will remember who won Penn State’s last three games. All they will remember is a culture that put football ahead of everything else. 

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in suburban Philadelphia. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”


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