From the current issue of On Wisconsin:
Frederick Jackson Turner 1884, MA1888 — one of the nation’s most esteemed historians and the man leading the effort to get rid of football — watched as the crowd of irate students made their way down Frances Street toward his home on Lake Mendota.
To its critics, college football at the turn of the 20th century was a corrupt and bloody swamp. To its many fans, it was a thrill. Since the sport’s advent in the 1870s, players had become bigger, stronger, and faster. As the number of broken bones, knockouts, and even deaths soared, so did the game’s popularity, attracting thousands of fans from on and off campuses around the country.
Attendance skyrocketed, as did the money supporters were willing to spend on tickets. University football programs, including the UW’s, brought in enough cash to fund other campus sports. Playing fields with rows of simple wooden bleachers gave way to large stadiums to accommodate tens of thousands of fans. Successful programs were willing to pay huge sums to get the best coaches in the country, in some cases offering salaries that exceeded those of prized professors. Colleges offered training tables for hungry athletes and held preseason camps. Recruiters sought out the most talented high school stars. Semipro players were openly recruited, too. Alumni pledged support to their alma maters by finding good jobs for players — or just paid them cash.
Breathless alumni magazine puff piece on a sordid chapter in the corrosive legacy of UW football, or a rope-a-dope implicit comparison of the toxicity of 21st century college football to the work of the university? It’s almost too hard to tell.