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  • Writer's pictureMichael Doolittle

How did Manly Excercises come to us colleges?

To understand how sports became such an important part of US colleges, we have to turn to England. Historian Richard Holt explores the history of English sports in his book Sports and the British: A Modern History.

Over the course of the Victorian era, more disorganized sports were supplanted by more organized sports as the larger society adapted to the economic changes that characterized that time. As with any important part of culture, considering sports is a “cultural and political as well as a social and economic enterprise; it involves maintaining a creative tension between the straightforward changes in the circumstances of most people— shorter hours, higher wages, new kinds of work— as well as the values that ordinary people brought to their play and ‘their better’ sought to impose upon it.” (Holt, pg. 3) Later on in our story, we have to use this broad approach to come to terms with how colleges in the US— students, alumni, administrators, presidents—adapted sports to fit into the very different American cultural landscape.

The rise of more organized sports paralleled the important changes in England from the mid 1800s. Industrialization, the development of a more robust national transportation system, increasing urbanization, and improving living standards which led to increased disposable income, all helped created an environment more conducive to the growth of national popular sports. “Teams and spectators could travel easily and relatively cheaply to games, newspapers with match reports and results could be quickly and widely distributed.” (Holt, pr. 5)

Unsurprisingly, the impetus for how sports were adapted into British schools were created by elite graduates of the public schools, the equivalent of US eastern prep schools. Rich children had the time and energy to devote themselves to athletics. In the 1800s, as the economy was transformed by the industrial revolution, Victorian elites worried that their children might be getting soft and unable to compete in a more Darwinian economic system and organized athletics offered a way to help ensure that the young elites would assume their rightful place as leaders when they grew up. Public school graduates for three major sports bodies in the 1800s— the Football Association (1863), the Rugby Union (1871) and the Amateur Athletic Association (1881). The upper class attitudes towards athletics was readily adapted by the middle classes.

The 1896 Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes: Being a Compendium of Out-Door and In-Door Amusements, an encyclopedia of sports begins: “The benefits of athletic and other manly exercises from an educational as well as a recreative point of view, are now very generally recognized.” The authors argue that athletics don’t just promote physical health, but have a crucial moral dimension. It quotes the Honorable Edward Lyttleton, who was the headmaster of Haileybury and later Eton, the most prestigious public school

“A boy is disciplined by athletics in two ways: by being forced to put the welfare of the common cause before selfish interests, to obey implicitly the word of command and act in concert with the hetergeneous elements of the company he belongs to: and, secondly, should it so turn out, he is disciplined by being raised to a post of command, where he feels the gravity of the responsible office and the difficulty of making prompt decisions and securing willing obedience...” (Preface. Pg. iii) There was now a “unanimity that now exists among parents and guardians as to the desirability of encouraging a reasonable pursuit of games and sports…”

Clearly athletics was considered by many to be an integral part of a complete education, as it became in the US. A sense that athletics was integral to British identity became part of the power that was projected during the colonial era. “The statement once made, that Waterloo was won in the playing fields at Eton, was no absurdly exaggerated one, for the grand old English games, and Football particularly, are admirably calculated to engender those sterling qualities which have won for British soldiers so many hardly-contested fight— the pluck to face any odds and any danger; the determination to win, if exactly at the right minutes; the hardy self-confidence that never even knows defeat.” (pg. 28)

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