People who teach in universities are painfully aware of the flow of time. For them a generation is not the conventional 30 years or so; it is four years, or the time it takes a student to proceed from freshman to graduate. The profession abounds in wry jokes directed against itself to the general point that the freshmen are getting younger every year. As the professor's hair thins, his students' becomes longer.
This process of rapid generation watching is deflating to the ego of aging professors, but it provides a rare advantage in assessing the sweep of events. Writers have been telling us for years about the remarkable changes in our life since World War II, and there can be no better index of such changes than students; they are articulate, ready to act (witness Columbia's riots) as well as to reflect and vulnerable to analysis in a manner that businessmen or politicians are not.
As a professor old enough to have been a student in the '30s, I find it useful and indeed instructive to compare my own student generation's attitude toward sports with that which I see among the bushy-haired young men I teach today. Just as the relationships between sport and society are more complex than one might think possible, so the place of sport in student minds over the past 30 years is at least equally complex. It is so involved, in fact, that I must indulge in a measure of autobiography in order to make completely plain the significant change to be observed in the student-sport relationship.
Between 1937 and 1941 the University of Minnesota had a student body of some 20,000—then considered huge, although small by postwar standards. The Depression was very much with us; it daily seared into the life of every student. Two-thirds of the students supported themselves wholly or in part by working at the menial jobs traditionally available. Although fees were low and expenses few, money was scarce. You could see yourself through a university year with $400, but with 25� to 30� an hour the going wage, it took you a year to save $400.
In the Midwest few parents were able to contribute to their offspring's higher education—that was known, taken for granted, and most students preferred it that way. If we occasionally pitied ourselves for not having money from home and a pleasant life in the fraternity or sorority houses, we would not have sacrificed our independence in return for the kept life of the fortunate, frivolous few. Along with self-support went the hard-earned right to tell your father to go to hell, literally and figuratively. Most often we accomplished that result by picketing in downtown Minneapolis for the striking truckmen, by announcing ourselves as atheist-humanists, by joining the local Trotskyite cell ( Minneapolis was never a Stalinist town) or simply by going to various left-wing meeting places and singing "Solidarity forever." Some of us became card-carrying party members, and some, like myself, did not actually sign up, because we could not sing the songs with a straight face and we lacked the money for dues. One of my friends enjoyed special status among us because his brother had been in Mexico as one of Trotsky's bodyguards. His stock went down, however, when Trotsky was murdered. Two other friends left the university to enlist with the Loyalists in Spain and, according to rumor, one was killed there. For us they were the equivalent or early Christian martyrs.
The other fact that dominated us even more than the Depression and politics was the coming war. We all knew that war was inevitable; each of us assumed that he would go off to it and be killed. We rather enjoyed the prospect of our imminent bloody death. It was a release from planning for the future and license to immediate enjoyment of the flesh, for which read getting high on beer whenever we could raise the price, and an occasional Dutch-treat date that might—but more likely might not—end up in someone's sack. Initially we were sympathetic to the America First Committee, for we were encouraged by the Trotskyites to see the crisis as an imperialistic, British mess. Later, by 1939, we were pro-British and pro-war, eager to go into it. In 1940 I wanted to join the Canadian Air Force, but my roommate persuaded me to stay on until our graduation in 1941. Then we'd volunteer for the Marines or the Navy and go get killed.
Life was not all politics and weekend bartending, however. A fair number of students did have their way paid. They did live at home or in fraternity houses, and they did live the lives of students as portrayed in the movies. They went to dances, and above all they went to football games. We, the self-supporting leftist rationalists, would not have been caught dead at a football game. Had the word been popular, we would have said that only squares went to football games. As it was, we called them "bourgeois," which is Marxist-Leninist for "square."
It is now necessary to remember that the University of Minnesota in particular and the Big Ten in general produced in the '20s and '30s a golden age in college football. At Minnesota, even for an un-bourgeois pro-Trotskyite, the memory of Bronko Nagurski was fresh. As late as 1937 Nagurski was with the Chicago Bears. Bernie Bierman was the peerless coach, and the names of Pug Lund and Andy Uram penetrated even into the leftist fastnesses. We also knew about Don Hutson at Alabama, of Fritz Crisler's coaching at Michigan, of Tommy Harmon and of Nile Kinnick at Iowa. When Minnesota won the conference title from Michigan in 1940 even the most hardened student political conspirator added an inch to his stature as he walked to the weekly party seminar, although he admitted the fact to no one, least of all to himself.
Minnesota was a true football power. Its stadium had been built in the '20s to equal the Yale Bowl. The players were regarded either as young gods by the squares or as stupid, corrupt oxen by my friends. And the sport was far more than a university pursuit. Students made up only a small proportion of the attendance at games; the population of the Twin Cities and of the state as a whole was fanatically there, seeming to outdo the Hollywood clich� of Saturday football.
Within the university proper, students could be classified with some delicacy according to their attitude toward sport. There was the minority who could afford the good student life, and they held season tickets and attended all football and basketball games without pausing to question their attitude. It was what you did, one of the reasons for attending the university. A second group lived in poverty and did not attend games because they could not pay the $6.50, as I recall, that a season ticket cost. They would have been glad to attend otherwise, and they had no antisport views. Then there was a large group made up of people like myself who equated attendance at games with cretinism, a betrayal of the proletarian masses and a waste of valuable time. Fraternities and sororities were the enemy and, since they were vocal supporters of college athletics, we were opposed to college athletics. Such was our snobbery that we organized something called the Jacobin Club and listed it with the dean as a fraternity simply to appear at the head of the published lists as the fraternity with the highest grade averages.