The Big Ten: What History Does and Does Not Do

The Supreme Court recently issued an important ruling on college athletics, limiting the power of the NCAA to prevent student athletes from receiving compensation and other benefits. The 9-0 vote was a long time coming. Many athletes, scholars and politicians have argued that the NCAA’s attempts at preserving “amateur” status for college athletes to be discriminatory and hypocritical. College sports, especially football, generates tremendous revenue. Why is it fair or ethical to keep the athletes from realizing some of these gains?

It is a question that lingers, particularly when looks at the bigger picture and the relationship of athletics to higher education. Big time sports can have an outsize influence on institutions and public perception. There’s a ton of good scholarship on the development of college sports over the years, and I recently read one work that is often recommended by scholars in the field: Winton U. Solberg’s Creating the Big Ten: Courage, Corruption, and Commercialization. It is rigorously researched, carefully crafted and a fine example of traditional institutional history, looking at the factors that led to the creation of the athletic conference in the early fifty years of big-time college athletics. Drawing from flagship institutions in the midwest, the Big Ten served as a prototype for other large athletic conferences. It is an organization that has benefited its member institutions, shaped policy, and raised massive amounts of money through ticket sales, media, and general interest from millions upon millions of fans. Solberg, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 97, was just the man to do such a work. His biography, in fact, speaks to a special kind of old-school historian.

Born in South Dakota, Solberg graduated from the University of South Dakota and then served with distinction in the US Army. He remained in the Army after World War II, teaching at West Point and earning an MA and PhD in history at Harvard. After teaching at a number of institutions he found a home at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, where climbed the ranks for full professor and then as an administrator and academic leader. Through it all, Solberg continued to research and publish works of history. It’s extremely impressive and it’s easy to tell that he was a disciplined thinker.

Creating the Big Ten, accordingly, reflects Solberg’s strengths and well-trod historical processes. He draws upon university archives and primary source documents. His focus is organizational, looking at which institutions met with which institutions, what was discussed and decided, and how that affected the development of the Big Ten as an athletic conference. The key actors are university presidents, athletic directors, football coaches, and a limited number of faculty members who assumed administrative roles. We see how leadership interacted with each other, arguing and compromising. There are conflicts and scandals with a seemingly inevitable march towards structure and stability. Wayward coaches, alumni and institution were punished, reinforcing over the years the institutional commitment to faculty influence to reassert that institutions were about academics and the development of the student, and a relatively consistent push to make sure that money did not flow to student athletes.

On one hand, it all makes very good sense.

On the other hand, the book, the questions it raised and answered, and the overall approach frustrated me. It raised questions that stayed with me, problems that bounced around in my head even as the facts were clear. This was not because Solberg was not doing what history usually requires. He was a good historian and he writes history well. My difficulty stems from the many questions and issues that it does not take up, for its deliberateness (understandable though it may be), and its lack interdisciplinarity. Understanding the growth and direction of college athletics in the United States is not going to come from meeting minutes. It demands that we look at our institutions and their behavior critically and creatively, from different perspectives.

As an example, Solberg repeatedly takes up the issue of the University of Notre Dame’s attempt to join the Big Ten, or Western Conference as it was called in its early days. He notes that he could not find any evidence of anti-Catholic bias. That is understandable; bias is rarely directly referenced in primary source documents. Instead, it is revealed in outcomes. Notre Dame was never able to join the conference. I wondered about the how and why, whether the rejection was grounded in local politics, in money, or in personalities. Anti-Catholic bias was only one of the many religious, racial and ethnic tensions roiling the country and flagship publish institutions, like the universities that comprise the Big Ten, had responsibilities for shaping students into good citizens. It was a charge they willingly embraced. How did institutional leaders square this mission with inclusivity?

At a wider lens, it is clear that the only sport that forced universities to think through the importance of high-level organization, rules and questions of professionalism was football. The public’s enthusiasm for football is much greater than other sports, or all other sports combined. Without football, it seemed to me that there was little interest in creating the Big Ten, though that is a counterfactual not raised in the book. Solberg is silent on why football was so popular, how institutions of higher education contributed to its popularity, and how alumni and internal institutional networks promoted football. He gives us data on the profitability of attendance at the gate but does not take up the question of other factors, such as enrollment, support from public and private officials, and how football affected development and alumni relations.

Along like lines, Solberg spells out the nominative reason for higher education to keep athletics in amateur status, pulling from the muscular Christianity literature of the latter part of the 1800s. He notes how administrators sought to place athletics under some form of faculty control to keep the institutions focused on mission, education, and character development. He does not explore the notion that allowing for professionalism, or at least compensation to athletes, might undermine administrative control and benefit of the larger enterprise. The way that the Big Ten and other conferences developed, institutions of higher education could lay claim to the higher moral ground of amateurism and benefit financially. All the pieces are there, but there’s little conjecture in the book on this and other possible motivating factors.

Similarly, missing from the volume are the voices and perspectives of the athletes, the students, the fans, and the political leaders who had outsize impact on the direction of public institutions. Solberg posits, without calling it out, institutional agency that may or may not have been present when it comes to high-profile college sports. His discussion of the abandonment of big-time athletics at the University of Chicago is strong. That history serves as an example of what could have happened – but did not – at so many institutions.

So what, then, to make of the Creating the Big Ten? It is good, solid and reliable, especially when read within its lane. Its effectiveness, though, inevitably leads the reader to larger questions. Ironically, without those alternative perspectives, the book might obscure as well as reveal. The strengths and weaknesses of the book underscore what the discipline of history valorizes and what it does not. Figuring out the how and why of American college sports and football asks for more than traditional history can deliver. And considering Solberg’s professional success and smarts, I would wager that he would concur.

David Potash

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