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Robert M. Hutchins
October 18, 1954
In 1939 the University of Chicago, under Robert M. Hutchins, abandoned football. Recently there has been a move to reinstate the sport, but the ex-president still believes higher education and football should not be mixed
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October 18, 1954

'college Football Is An Infernal Nuisance'

In 1939 the University of Chicago, under Robert M. Hutchins, abandoned football. Recently there has been a move to reinstate the sport, but the ex-president still believes higher education and football should not be mixed

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The University of Chicago abandoned intercollegiate football in 1939 because the game hampered the university's efforts to become the kind of institution it aspired to be. The university believed that it should devote itself to education, research and scholarship. Intercollegiate football has little to-do with any of these things and an institution that is to do well in them will have to concentrate upon them and rid itself of irrelevancies, no matter how attractive or profitable. Football has no place in the kind of institution Chicago aspires to be.

It has been argued that Chicago is different. Perhaps it is and maybe it is just that difference that enabled the university to separate football from education.

Chicago is one of the few endowed universities in the U.S. that did not grow out of a college. It was founded as a university, to engage in advanced study, research and professional training, together with such basic education as was necessary to prepare students for the graduate level. Its enrollment is comparatively small. Of 7,500 full-time students, 50% were in graduate courses. Forty per cent of the undergraduates were women and a very large number were working their way through.

The appeal of the university was to those who shared its aims. Students came to study and the alumni, an unusual proportion of whom were teachers and members of the learned professions, agreed that that was what they should be doing.


Other institutions in the Midwest may have wanted to develop programs similar to Chicago's, perhaps even drop football, but they were not as free to act as the university was. They all had limitations of governmental or denominational control; they had a different kind of alumni or a different relationship with them; or they were without the financial resources that the University of Chicago commanded. The university, far from feeling a duty to conform, believed that its principal reason for existence was to criticize and improve upon current educational practices.

For their difference Chicago students are often considered anomalies in the American college scene. In a recent student election, for example, the following battle cry was scrawled on a wall near the Midway: "Keating is a neo-classicist dog." But this, though suggestive, is only superficial. Chicago students look as "normal" to me as any I meet elsewhere. And their college life is lively enough. At last reports there were 141 recognized student organizations on the campus.

Indeed, that is one of the points. The university hoped to prove that "normal" young Americans could get excited about the life of the mind. To the disintegrated curriculum common in this country, which will frustrate anybody's attempts to make sense of it, the university opposed an intelligible program of education, and the students did get excited about it. The late Alfred North Whitehead remarked that the place that seemed to him most like what he imagined ancient Athens to have been was the University of Chicago.


The ancient Athenians were as crazy about sport as modern Americans are. So were the ancient Romans and the Renaissance Italians. So are contemporary Britons and Germans. But we Americans are the only people in human history who ever got sport mixed up with higher education. No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment. In some other countries university athletic teams are unheard of; in others; like England, the teams are there, but their activities are valued chiefly as affording the opportunity for them and their adherents to assemble in the open air. Anybody who has watched, as I have, 12 university presidents spend half a day solemnly discussing the Rose Bowl agreement, or anybody who has read?as who has not??portentous discussions of the "decline" of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago because of the recurring defeats of its football team must realize that we in America are in a different world.

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