The first college football game ever played occurred on Nov. 6, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers. Rutgers won the game with six “runs” to Princeton’s four.
Today, that historic rivalry is a source of lore and pride for both campuses. But according to sports writer Frank Deford, who spoke Wednesday at Claremont McKenna’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, this is only part of the story.
“Nobody mentions that the third game that year, the third college game ever played, had to be canceled because [college administrators] thought there was already too much attention paid to football at the exclusion of scholarship,” Deford explained.
“We’re still the only country in the world that mixes up athletics and academics—there are no prime time games between Oxford and the Sorbonne,” he said. “What I fear is it serves to make sports seem even more important than art, music, or literature. It serves to create more of an anti-intellectual atmosphere.”
This interaction between athletics and academics in American society, along with the current state of American sports, was the topic of a speech Deford gave at CMC Wednesday. The event was jointly sponsored by the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and the Athenaeum.
Deford, who turned 71 last year, got his start with Sports Illustrated and currently hosts a sports segment every Wednesday morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. He is the author of 16 books, including the 2007 best-selling baseball novel, The Entitled, and has been called “the world’s greatest sportswriter” by GQ.
“Is the emphasis on college sports ever going to change? I don’t think so,” Deford said at the talk. “There’s just too much real estate in it—those great modern cathedrals that we call arenas and stadiums—there’s too much money, and too many red-meat alumni who care nothing about academics and only about athletics.”
Deford also criticized the athletic scholarship system and argued that big sports colleges should pay athletes who participate in so-called “revenue sports.”
“Players are effectively acting as unpaid entertainers ideally supposed to support the entire athletic budget … and for my money, they should get paid,” he said. “Then there’s the other side of the coin: all the other sports, [like] track and field, hockey, tennis, golf—why do these [athletes] get scholarships for their extracurricular work, when the men and women who, say, play in the college orchestra, act in college dramatics, or work for the college newspaper or radio don’t?”
This imbalance, Deford said, has skewed the American educational system.
“There are now more American college students majoring in sports management than in engineering,” he said. “We’ve got some cockeyed academic priorities in this country.”
The speech, while serious at times, generated several laughs from the audience.
“There are two great myths in American sports,” Deford said. “Number 1: next year soccer will become popular in the United States. And Number 2: next year the college presidents will clean up college sports.”
The importance of soccer to the rest of the world, though lost on Deford, was something he learned of early in his journalistic career, he said.
“Oddly enough, one story that had the greatest impact on me was a soccer story, [even though] I don’t understand soccer, and I don’t see hitting a ball with your head as a club, and moving an object with your feet as you run and not using your hands, which God gave us to separate us from the beasts of the field,” Deford said, trailing off toward the end. “Maybe that’s why we’re the only superpower left in the world, because we don’t depend on soccer.”
Along with the jokes, Deford had some serious points to make about the importance of sports in America and youth development, and he recounted some of the experiences he had as a journalist that shaped these views.
“I’ve always been fascinated by teams and everything they stand for,” Deford said. “I think one of the special things that’s distinguished America and that’s made us stronger is that we can, better than other people, balance the individual and the group.”
“Other cultures seem to go to extremes. They tend to stress either the collective on one side or the idiosyncratic on the other,” he said. “Maybe it’s our way of compensating for being such a transient and heterogeneous culture.”
Deford emphasized the role that sports teams play in teaching people to work together.
“We always call it teamwork, but I think it’s primarily teamcare,” he said. “It’s just that caring sounds sissier than working.”
Deford pointed to great team players in sports history, like Bill Russell, a former center for the Boston Celtics, whom Deford called the “greatest team player of all time.”
One student asked Deford what he thought about Lebron James’s decision to move to the Miami Heat, and how he thought it would affect the NBA.
“The Lebron James situation is like the [New York] Yankees: an awful lot of people don’t like the Yankees because they’ve just bought their way to the top,” he said. “James and the other players did essentially what management did with the Yankees, and it makes them look a little bit like bullies.”
Still, Deford recognized the strength of the Miami team.
“I think probably by the end of the season they’ll be the best team. I know they got beat [Tuesday] and it will take them a while to mesh, but I would say they’re too good a team not to win in the long run,” he said.
“I remember when Wilt Chamberlain first went to the Lakers, though, and joined up with [Jerry] West and [Elgin] Baylor, and everybody said that they would win, but they didn’t,” Deford continued. “They got beat by [Bill] Russell [and the Celtics] that year because once again, a good team beat a bunch of talented guys.”