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inside the moat
Steve Rushin
March 03, 1997
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March 03, 1997

Inside The Moat


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"Regardless of what benefits you believe student-athletes should receive," says John Leavens, head of the NCAA's membership-services staff, "is there anybody who questions that NCAA sports is about students competing?" No one questions that it ought to be about students competing, but many question that it is. The NCAA repeatedly notes that for four consecutive years, graduation rates have been higher for student-athletes than for the general student body. But NCAA leaders also watch in silent horror as Oklahoma hires a man without a college degree to direct its athletic department and to encourage its athletes to stay in school. They endure with quiet dismay the conspicuously unstudious image of the 1995 national champion Nebraska football team. Of the decision to only briefly suspend that team's troubled running back Lawrence Phillips after he assaulted a female student, Dempsey says, "I thought [coach] Tom Osborne did himself a disservice."

But Dempsey also knows that football coaches have been giving their players a wide berth for more than a hundred years. It is why the NCAA came into being.

In 1905 there was a cure for every ill. Castoria was "A Perfect Remedy for Constipation, Sour Stomach, Diarrhoea, Worms, Convulsions, Feverishness and Loss of Sleep." Laxative Bromo Quinine cured "A Cold in One Day, Grip in 2 Days." Dr. Sheffield's Anti-Septic Creme Dentrifice Tooth Powder Elixir Balm—the name ends with an astonishing triple oxymoron, or is it a triple redundancy?—had been "Used by the Elite of the World Since 1850."

The nation's president was not a pastythighed french fry aficionado but health nut Teddy Roosevelt. Long before Mount Rushmore was carved, TR was a rock: He abandoned his bride to climb the Matterhorn on their honeymoon; he played 91 games of tennis in a single day; and he enjoyed tangling in the White House with pro wrestlers and boxers. "Often the President was damaged," writes biographer Edward Wagenknecht in The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt. "Finally he lost an eye." No wonder that Roosevelt "said he would disinherit a boy if he were to weigh the possibility of broken bones against the glory of playing football for Harvard."

The president's boy Teddy was a freshman footballer for the Crimson in the fall of 1905, by which time broken bones were the least of a parent's concerns. Playing football was seen to have the same ennobling effect as war and was often as violent. The rules allowed anything. Offenses could throw ballcarriers over the line, and defenses could counter by throwing their own backs at the ballcarriers, creating America's first air disasters. Between 1880 and 1905, according to the Boston Globe, 330 deaths and 1,149 serious injuries resulted from college football. Eighteen of those deaths occurred in 1905.

By Oct. 9 of that year even President Roosevelt had seen enough. He summoned 13 prominent coaches and administrators to the White House and gave them a choice: Reform football's rules or abolish the game. The coaches, as arrogant then as now, casually assured TR they'd get back to him on this. The next day's New York Times carried front-page news of the meeting; of the death of a Hampden-Sidney College player from injuries suffered in practice; and of Yale freshman football players, among other students, running amok on campus: "Balls of fire were thrown on the heads of passersby, revolvers were fired, women insulted, and tubs of water were poured from windows." Yale promptly instituted a ban on freshman athletics, with one exception: "That the football team may be allowed to play out its schedule."

College athletics were never remotely clean. Berst prepared a 19-page memo for senior staffers at the NCAA detailing the long history of "student-athletes" accepting money and abstaining from academics. The litany begins in 1852 with the superintendent of the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad offering "lavish prizes" and "unlimited alcohol" to Harvard and Yale rowing crews to compete on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire and thus lure wealthy train passengers up to watch.

Six weeks after Roosevelt's White House summit, when Harold Moore of Union College was killed in a football game against NYU, chancellor Henry MacCracken of NYU called on his fellow college presidents to take action. Representatives of 13 Eastern schools met in Manhattan on Dec. 8. The historic gathering was overshadowed by a local court case in which Metropolitan Opera tenor Enrico Caruso lost his appeal of a $10 fine "for annoying women in the monkey house at Central Park." But the presidents agreed to reconvene three weeks later, and for that meeting 62 delegates showed up. They called themselves the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States.

Before radio, cinema and television, those disinclined to annoy women in monkey houses diverted themselves by reading books, and the hot item that Christmas, with 100,000 copies sold, was L. Frank Baum's The Land of Oz. The IAAUS agreed to meet again a year later, after Christmas 1906. The NCAA convention held this past January was a direct descendant of that first official affair, at which the IAAUS changed football: It adopted the forward pass, established the one-yard neutral zone, cut game time from 70 to 60 minutes, required six men on the offensive line and mandated a 10-yard gain (instead of the previous five) for a first down. Five years later the IAAUS changed its monogram to NCAA, and soon it was organizing title events, compiling rules for other sports and becoming the body of busybodies it is today. From IAAUS to your house.

Capt. Palmer Pierce of West Point was elected the Association's first president. According to the NCAA's self-published history—called, with characteristic self-righteousness, NCAA: The Voice of College Sports—Pierce surveyed the 49 schools represented at the 1907 convention and declared, "I firmly believe the [Association] will finally dominate the college athletic world."

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