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Review of Julie Des Jardins' "Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man"

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Luther Spoehr, a senior lecturer at Brown University, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics.

For decades, historians have been writing about America’s “crisis of masculinity” at the turn of the twentieth century.  Alarmed by the closing of the frontier, the replacement of physical labor by “brain work,” Social Darwinism’s emphasis on competition and natural selection, the influx of “new immigrants,” and the like, America’s white male elite cast about to find what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.”  Schools and colleges were particularly important settings for the search:  Endicott Peabody founded the Groton School to provide Spartan physical training and character-building that would make coddled boys into tough, resilient men who would live what the irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt would call the “strenuous life.”  Stanford University’s pioneering first president, David Starr Jordan, sounded the theme tirelessly; even his autobiography was titled “Days of a Man.”

Given the prominence and prevalence of this obsession, and how much effort historians have put into exploring its meaning and significance, it may be surprising that Walter Camp, the “father of football,” has not been the subject of a full, modern biography.  Perhaps that omission is a measure of how hard it has been for sports history to be taken seriously as a topic for study, despite its obvious relevance to cultural and social history. 

In any case, I bring you good news:  Julie Des Jardins’ Walter Camp:  Football and the Modern Man is well worth the wait.  Fluidly written, empathetic but far from uncritical, it develops several themes in addition to its primary one regarding masculinity, including the rise of sports culture, the passing of the Anglophilic ideal of the “amateur” and the Victorian gentleman, and the growing importance of specialization and “efficiency” in yet another sphere of American life.  My only complaint is with the copy editors, who allow too many typos to slip by, including some embarrassing ones (“lifeless” appears twice, when “unconscious” is needed; a “marquis” is not the same as a “marquee.”)  But these are minor quibbles that do not significantly dim my appreciation of this valuable, versatile book.

Walter Camp (1859-1925) was arguably the single most influential person in American sports history.  Des Jardins, a historian who has written previously about Madame Curie and Lillian Gilbreth, does not say this explicitly, but she documents his life and times so thoroughly that it’s possible to make the case.  A Connecticut native, he grew up in New Haven, played football for Yale, and never really left.  Although he went to work for the family business, the New Haven Clock Company, and rose to the top of the executive ladder, most of his considerable energies went into coaching Yale’s team and advancing the sport all over the country.  (I don’t know if Camp ever said that his ideal team “ran like clockwork,” but in the age of Taylorism, as Des Jardins observes, that’s very much what he had in mind.)   Yale was already dominant in the emerging sport of football when Camp took the reins, but he carried it to new heights.  Des Jardins notes that “between 1872 and 1909, the record of Yale football was a staggering 324 wins, 17 losses, and 18 ties…. The Yale eleven of 1900 was a team for the ages.  It won all twelve of its games, outscoring its opponents 336 to 10.  Camp named seven of his starting eleven to the All-America first team, three to the second team, and the remaining starter to the third.” 

Camp did not just preside over Yale’s football success from his perch in the Yale Athletic Association, but also played perhaps the single most important role in changing how the game was played.  A powerful presence on football’s Rules Committee from 1878 to 1915, he helped to shape rules on everything:  Starting play (how many players on a side?  how to establish a “line of scrimmage”?) Eligibility (how many years could a player play?  Many, including Camp himself, had played more than four.  Could graduate / medical / law students play?  Did players have to be full-time students?);  Defense (can you tackle a man below the waist?  below the knees?); Offense (how many downs, and how far for a first down?  how many men on the line of scrimmage?  can passes be thrown from anywhere behind the line?  should incompletions be penalized?). 

Driving many of these questions was concern for safety (an issue that echoes disconcertingly today).  Twice during Camp’s career, in the middle of the 1890s and again in 1905-1906, in the light of gruesome injuries and even fatalities, many educational leaders called for football’s abolition.  Harvard’s president Charles Eliot was convinced that “To become brutal and brutalizing is the natural tendency of all sports which involve violent personal collision between players.”  The presidents of Cornell, Lafayette, Michigan, and others agreed.  Some wanted it to be replaced by rugby.  Stanford’s President Jordan, characteristically pithy, called football “Rugby’s American pervert.”  Benjamin Ide Wheeler of Berkeley agreed, and for a time the Big Game played between the two schools was rugby, not football.  Camp came to think that such admirers of the English amateur ideal didn’t realize that the English used “sportsmanship” as, in his words, “an excuse for laziness or as a cloak to cover lack of preparation.”  Americans, he thought, rightly cared more about victory.

Football fit the spirit of the age, and Camp publicized the game in ways that appealed to American men and boys of all ages. Nearly 30 books and 250 articles streamed from his pen.  His widely read book on American Football (1891) preached the need for specialized skills and training to an age enamored of efficiency and “science” in all things.  Former players fanned out across the country to coach teams according to his gospel. He wrote Football for the Spectator, articles for Collier’s and McClure’s, short stories in Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas magazines, and novels for the Young People’s Library.  And every year he named his All-American Team, a task that grew infinitely more difficult as, even without benefit of ESPN’s nightly SportsCenter, the game spread like kudzu across the country. Camp collected information as best he could and became somewhat more flexible than might be expected for a man of his background:  Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indian School, Knute Rockne of Catholic Notre Dame, and African-Americans Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson of Rutgers all made the team. 

There was irony as well as flexibility here:  “The gridiron,” says Des Jardins, “as psychic and literal turf, was one of the few spaces left in the public sphere that Camp could designate as truly male.  His definition of manhood, rooted in the physically powerful body, offset fears of emasculation in white American men, creating boundaries that women likely could never cross.  And yet, for many minority and working-class men, this definition of manhood, rooted in the athletic physique, was not a boundary but rather an advantage in the end.”  This, Des Jardins suggests, was a consequence of the American environment and Camp’s instinctive, intuitive acceptance of it:  “ultimately,” she says, he “rejected the ideal of ascribed status and acknowledge achieved status as truly American.”

Ironically, too, the on-field changes that Camp endorsed to open up the game (especially the forward pass) and make it safer helped to hasten the decline of football where it had first flourished, in schools we now call “Ivy League.”  Colleges increasingly saw football as a way to bring attention to themselves (Robin Lester’s Stagg’s University:  The Rise and Decline of Big-Time Football at Chicago [1995] is a vivid case study of how professionalism and commercialism came on stage early in the story.)  Camp had been an unpaid coach relying on volunteer assistants.  That soon changed, and college football was propelled down the road that led to Nick Saban, his $6.9 million salary, and his staff of dozens.

By 1915, although barely 55 years old, Camp was withdrawing from the college scene and refocusing his energies on fitness for the masses.  Predictably for a man of his class and background, he advocated “preparedness” as the United States edged toward involvement in the Great War—although his voice was far less shrill than that of his “kindred spirit,” Teddy Roosevelt.  Appalled, as many were, by the physical condition of many draftees, he became director of athletic programs for the Navy, set up a Senior Service Corps for men of his age, and became even more famous when he publicized the “Daily Dozen,” which Des Jardins aptly summarizes as “four groups of three alliterative exercises:  hands, hips, head; grind, grate, grasp; crawl, curl, crouch; wave, weave, wing,” all to be done, said Camp, “lightly and naturally.”

The game of football was passing him by, becoming more and more a spectacle for spectators.  A crowd of 77,000 watched the first game in the Yale Bowl in 1914 (and to show how the world was changing, Harvard won, 36-0).  College football was part of the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, as players like Red Grange were more famous than their teams or their schools, and coaches like Notre Dame’s Rockne became celebrities.  (Amherst’s Alexander Meiklejohn fired perhaps the last round in resisting the cult of the coach:  he proposed requiring coaches to sit in the stands during games.  Is it necessary to add that this suggestion got nowhere?)  And as the pile of money on which the college game was built grew ever higher, it was always in the name of “character-building” and “teamwork.”

Recounting the “Fourth Quarter” of Camp’s life, Des Jardins notes some final ironies.  The paragon of fitness and upright living died suddenly of a heart attack.  He was not quite 66 years old.  Then again, he had been a cigarette smoker.  And while his estate proved to be worth over $328,000, only about $12,500 of that was stock in the New Haven Clock Company.  The rest came from his athletic activities.  Not bad for an advocate of amateurism.

Des Jardins details these contradictions humanely and empathetically, and she uses evidence effectively when highlighting Camp’s very human, sometimes paradoxical nature.  He advocated “civilized manliness and primitive masculinity all at once,” she says, and “made Americans think that old and new forms of manhood could be reconciled into an effective whole, since he was walking proof—an intellectual and an athlete, a moral and physical specimen, a gentleman and a man’s man.  Few Americans were more successfully or literally self-made.”   In short, Des Jardins gives us an organic, coherent portrait of Walter Camp in the midst of his complicated, changing times.   Her book is a perfect marriage of author and subject. 

 

 

 



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