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Physical Education of Youth

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History-2nd Edition by Gerald R. Gems,Linda J. Borish & Gertrud Pfister.

At the college level, American educators adopted European gymnastics systems to improve the fitness levels of both male and female students. In 1885, Oberlin College in Ohio began training physical educators. The German Turners offered their own courses in Milwaukee and Boston, and graduates of the Turner system introduced German gymnastics to public high schools in Kansas City in 1885 and throughout the Midwest thereafter. In 1889, Mary Hemenway, a wealthy Bostonian, founded the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, which favored the Swedish system that emphasized flexibility rather than strength. At Harvard, Dr. Dudley Sargent introduced weight-training machines and anthropometric measurements. The YMCA opened its own teacher-training center in Springfield, Massachusetts. These various competing philosophies and training methods became known as the Battle of the Systems, as colleges and public high schools deliberated on the best procedure for training students.


In the cities, the transition to rationalized, commodified sport continued. In 1888, students in Boston high schools formed a football league, and similar organizations soon appeared throughout the Midwest. In Chicago, the high school football league charged dues, which covered the cost of a championship banner. The second-place team received the remaining cash in the league treasury. Trophies, rewards, and media attention promoted school spirit, communal pride, and an intense desire to win. High school newspapers lionized school athletes, local merchants honored them, and students feted their warriors with banquets and adulation as well as financial support. Intense rivalries triggered the use of "ringers" - exceptional athletes who were only part-time students or who had no affiliation with the school at all. Lax eligibility regulations plagued contests at both the interscholastic and intercollegiate levels, and even faculty members played in some competitions. In 1891, the Manual Training High School in the Chicago league protested that it was the only league member actually using its own students. Such practices openly violated the amateur standards of the governing bodies and upset reformers who adhered to a belief in sport as a character-building mechanism.


Despite its violent aspects, many educators valued the lessons inherent in football.
Despite its violent aspects, many educators valued the lessons inherent in football.

Image from Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 31, 1891.


In June 1893, the University of Illinois invited high schools to participate in its athletic meet, an event that drew more than two hundred athletes for track-and-field events, cycling races, a football kick, and a baseball throw. The University of Chicago, founded with John D. Rockefeller’s money, opened in 1892 and began offering interscholastic tournaments in track and basketball. Its coach and athletic director, Amos Alonzo Stagg, played in the first-ever basketball game, a sport invented by James Naismith at the YMCA School in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. On March 10, 1892, Stagg wrote the following letter to his sister, Pauline Stagg:

There is a great furor among the boys in the school over a new game which Naismith our center rusher invented, called basket foot ball. It is played indoors in the gymnasium or some good sized room. Any number of persons on a side. A basket with large enough opening to take the ball easily is hung at each end about eight feet from the floor. The object is for the ball to be thrown or pitched into these baskets. The ball cannot be run with, although no limitations are placed on any one when not having the ball. This of course places a premium on passing the ball to others and so work it down the field. Fouls are declared for running with the ball and for kicking it. Any one has a right to the ball at all times if he can get it. I think the game could be easily adapted to girls - the main point being to get a basket as big as a house. The faculty of the school play the best team composed of the Secretarial men tomorrow. We expect a great time.

qtd. In Gems, Sports 143


The game was intended to provide a winter activity that would occupy energetic young men during the interim period between football and baseball seasons, and it further allowed physical educators to gain greater control over unruly males throughout the entire year. The early rules, however, permitted a high number of players and the use of rough tactics akin to those of a wrestling match. A few months later, Senda Berenson, an instructor at Smith College in Massachusetts, devised alternative rules for women’s play, and the game soon became a favorite of high school girls as well. Berenson organized the first women’s game, in 1892, after reading about the new game of basketball at Springfield College. She modified the men’s rules to make the game less rough, divided the basketball court into three zones, and thereby restricted strenuous play. Girls could not cross over the zones, which necessitated a cooperative strategy to score points. No physical contact between players was allowed, so that they could not "snatch" the ball or block players as in the men’s game (Hult, Century 24 - 25). Basketball quickly became a popular sport for women and girls of diverse ethnic backgrounds at various social organizations and settlement houses. Josephine Wilkin, in a letter to her mother on March 6, 1892, related the first game played at Smith College:

Friday afternoon at the Gym, we played a game, instead of going through the ordinary performances. Two waste-paper baskets were hung, one on either side of the Gym about three feet above our heads. Two of the girls choose sides, + those on our side were distinguished from the other by handkerchiefs tied on their arms. Three girls from each side were sent over to the other and the game began. We had a football which was to be touched only with the hands, + the object was to get it into your opponent’s basket + keep it out of your own. When it was sent over to our side, the girls on that side who had been sent from the other tried to get it and throw it into the basket while the rest tried to catch it + throw it back to their helpers on the other side. See? It was great fun, + very exciting, especially when we got knocked down, as frequently happened. The side I was on had the misfortune to be beaten, but we had the ball in their basket several times, including the first time.

qtd. in Gems, Sports 147 - 148


Senda Berenson initiated women’s basketball at Smith College in 1892.
Senda Berenson initiated women’s basketball at Smith College in 1892.

Image courtesy of Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.


Some women, like their male counterparts, participated in sports for physical health and competition, but they did so in a disputed context, as physicians, psychologists, and educators debated the appropriateness of sport for women. Some of these authorities worried about the stress of competition, while others feared damage to reproductive capacities or the accumulation of aggressive male characteristics. Nevertheless, women found a variety of sporting opportunities in the schools, settlement houses, and industrial recreation programs.


In 1895, William Morgan, a graduate of the YMCA Training School, invented volleyball, another indoor sport, at nearby Holyoke, as adults increasingly sought to assume greater control over students’ extracurricular activities.Thereafter, YMCA missionaries carried both games throughout the world, as sport provided one means of attracting young men in the quest for converts. As the new century approached, then, sport presented a battleground contested by various groups, as immigrants struggled with assimilation, youth rebuffed adult control in schools and play spaces, and professional athletes challenged the amateur ideal.


In 1898, faculty members at the Chicago high schools formed the Board of Control to govern student athletics. They standardized rules, established eligibility requirements, addressed unsporting behavior, and prohibited money prizes. The Board of Control scheduled contests only at approved sites, such as school gyms, YMCAs, or settlement houses, where adults might oversee students’ activities. The Board even enacted competitive divisions based on size and weight to equalize competition. Students, however, protested the loss of their freedom and the curtailment of their own initiatives. They even revolted, attempting to establish their own league outside the jurisdiction of school authorities. The venture failed when the superintendent of schools expelled the revolutionary students (Pruter, "Chicago High").


School rivalries extended well beyond the local scene. By the turn of the twentieth century, high school teams traveled throughout the country for regional and national competitions. Debates over contrasting styles of play resulted in a national football showdown. Eastern schools favored the plodding, mass plays (i.e., players closely bunched to produce mass force) and brute strength exhibited by the New England college teams, while Midwesterners favored speed, end runs, and reverses, sometimes running in excess of one hundred plays during a game (no huddles). For some time, challenges between the Eastern and Midwestern college powers went unheeded, but in 1902 Brooklyn’s Polytechnic High School met Chicago’s Hyde Park High School in a postseason confrontation in Chicago. The Midwestern style of play overwhelmed the New Yorkers, and Chicago won by a score of 105-0. Brooklyn claimed that Poly did not represent its best team, and Charles Ebbets, owner of its professional baseball team, guaranteed funding for a rematch in New York the next year. In the event, darkness forced a cessation, with Chicago’s North Division High School in a commanding 75-0 lead over Brooklyn Boys’ High.


New York fared better than other localities in its regulation and administration of local high school sports. Dr. Luther Gulick became director of physical training in the New York school system in 1903 and instituted a comprehensive athletic program that offered competition in baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, crew, cross country, lacrosse, and riflery. Boys could earn distinctive badges for successful completion of physical fitness tests, and classes might win honors by surpassing average scores of other classes. School teams competed for district and city championships symbolized by trophies that were proudly displayed at schools. In 1907, a crowd of fifteen thousand witnessed the championship baseball game held at the Polo Grounds.


The organization of the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) in New York included even the elementary schools. In 1905, a girls division was created to offer folk dancing, but it limited athletic competition in other activities to intramural events. Numerous other cities adopted the New York model, as adults increasingly controlled students’ leisure pursuits. As child labor laws directed considerable numbers of ethnic-minority and immigrant youths into the school system, adult educators employed sport in efforts to Americanize them. For others who remained outside the jurisdiction of school authorities, Progressive reformers employed similar strategies for supervised play instruction at parks, playgrounds, and settlement houses across America. When successful, such programs served as an effective social control device, curtailing juvenile delinquency and increasing adult guidance.

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