These days, Southern football and evangelical Christianity have forged a strong bond. But it hasn’t always been that way.
At least, so wrote Andrew Doyle of Winthrop University, in an article he wrote titled, “Foolish and Useless Sport: The Southern Evangelical Crusade Against Intercollegiate Football.”
In fact, the article was published about 15 years ago, in the Fall 1997 issue of the Journal of Sport History. I came across it while doing some other research, and the topic naturally interested me (as did the mentions of Auburn University). But keep in mind that basically all of this stuff is his.
The Auburn-Georgia game in February 1892 is considered the first intercollegiate football game in the Deep South. But the arrival of football did not impress the local clergy.
The Rev. C.L. Chilton, pastor of the First Methodist Church in Auburn, declared that this “foolish and useless sport [was] more properly called a fight.” He gave an injury report for both teams, but the sprains and broken bones listed were a denunciation of the spectacle.
Chilton, like many church leaders, was concerned that football would overwhelm the academic mission of the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, as it was known as the time. “Here in Auburn, football is the one engrossing theme during the season. The whole thing is a travesty upon higher education,” he complained. Even the daily practices were popular: “Learned professors hasten to the scene of the fray,” he said.
Some might argue that football provided exercise to build strong young men, but Chilton was unimpressed: “Any young man can acquire that at home in the useful emoluments of cutting his mother’s yard or driving his father’s plow.”
The Wesleyan Christian Advocate in Georgia joined the criticism that immediately followed the game: “And so the sacred altars, whose incense has been so inspiring to our people in the past, are broken down, and these gods of the sensual and material man have set up their altars instead.” To the WCA, the game represented “a swing back to Olympic Greece and her barbarian ideals.”
So how could such an outrage happen? The WCA blamed it on the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Social degeneration allowed football to find its way onto Southern campuses. “This new outbreak in the South, in contrast with the sturdy integrity of our past history, is but a natural result of lowering the standard of citizenship and manhood.”
To others, it was another cultural evil brought down from the North whose effects would be felt deeply on the college campuses. W.P. Fleming, a teacher and Methodist church member writing in the WCA, urged Southerners to resist “the athletic craze [that] is just beginning to take southern colleges … before our higher education will be degraded into what it has already become in some institutions of the North.”
Alabama and Auburn played for the first time the year after Auburn and Georgia. By 1900, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery said the behavior of fans who attended that years game in the state capitol “is such as to startle and shock the community.” Indeed, the Alabama Christian Advocate described football’s ability to “convert a crowd of students, inflamed with liquor and excited by loyalty to their institution, into a howling mob of toughs, gamblers, and drunkards.”
Even after Auburn stopped playing Alabama, the Tigers continued to travel to Birmingham to play games. Seeing the students flock to the city’s saloons, the president of the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union asked the Auburn president to stop scheduling games in Birmingham. Unfortunately for the WCTU, the bigger cities provided bigger ticket sales, so the request was ignored.
As part of the greater debate on the usefulness of sports like football, many pointed to its role in building strong young men imbued with a commitment to teamwork and sacrifice toward a common goal.
But these Southern writers were not buying the “manhood” argument. The WCA exhorted the universities to “hold the standard of scholarship high, so as to require true manhood to reach after it, and when it is attained, we could feel that we have real men as our sons and not mere prize fighters.”
The ACA complained that the mind was subordinated to the body on campuses that embraced football: “The ideal man is the one that can kick, rather than the one that can think.”
It’s amazing to think that because of the pressure, the University of Georgia trustees banned football shortly after the first Auburn-Georgia game, though they caved to pressure from students and the media a year later. The University of Alabama restricted the Alabama team to home games. That restricted football so much that Alabama played only four games overall in 1896 and 1897, and did not field a team at all in 1898.
Eventually, of course, all of this changed. The evangelical church has come around, and institutionally speaking is one of football’s biggest supporters. And the University of Alabama even allows its team to play away games (though getting them to the Auburn campus would take a few more decades).
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