A Major Influencer for Fitness, Athletic Administration, and Collegiate Sport 1914–1945

Susan J. Rayl
State University of New York at Cortland

Matthew Lindaman
Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith and the Quest for Athletic Fitness
280 pages, hardcover, ill.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2018 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-3587-1

Author, Matthew Lindaman, states that Major John L. Griffith, rarely mentioned in the history of intercollegiate athletics in the early to mid-1900s, deserves greater attention as a notable figure in the organization and promotion of college sport in the United States in the early years of the NCAA.  Fit for America accomplishes this goal and then some.  Lindaman, a history professor at Winona State University, performs an admirable job of delineating Griffith’s life in athletics, making generous use of numerous primary sources, much from Griffith’s publication, The Athletic Journal, as well as several excellent secondary sources.

With a chronological approach to the narrative, Chapter 1 begins with Griffith’s college years at Beloit where he became the sport pages editor for the school newspaper, gained experience as manager of the Track and Field team and football squad, and played on the baseball and football “B” teams.  Griffith coached at Yankton College, Morningside College and Drake, where he founded the Drake Relays.  This chapter details the transition of intercollegiate athletic control to the Western Athletic Conference (now the Big Ten Conference) and the influence of Amos Alonzo Stagg of the University of Chicago, Ed Merrill – a multi-sport athlete at Beloit College, the early growth of collegiate track and field, and the beginnings of the NCAA.

Lindaman analyzes the overall impact of World War  on Griffith’s career in Chapter 2.  Griffith resigned from Drake University and joined the war effort in April 1917, as an athletic director and then an executive officer of training activities. He promoted athletics and competitive sports in lieu of military drills as a proponent of the preparedness movement.  After the war, Griffith took a position at the University of Illinois, where he endorsed a four-year program in coaching.  In 1921, Griffith created the Athletic Journalas a forum for discussion about college athletics, to promote athletics in the public schools, and a network for the coaching profession.  For Griffith, physical training served as an important aspect of an education, “to train citizenship and not solely to advance intellectualism.”

Chapter 3 focuses on 1919 to 1925 and the role of intercollege athletics in education.  Griffith connected physical fitness with American ideals of democracy and competitive capitalism.  For Griffith, affective values such as cooperation, loyalty and team spirit justified sport.  He also promoted the creation of memorial stadiums between 1919 and 1929, the era of stadium building, at several midwestern universities.  An issue of paying athletes emerged, which threatened the amateur ideal and caused a need for rules and institutional control.  A myth of college sport developed, one that stated that athletics could educate through moral development, something the NCAA continues to pontificate.

Lindaman devotes Chapter 4 to the creation of the Commissioners position in the Western Conference, and the shift of control from the faculty to the Athletics Director.  He presents a history of the Western Conference, noting the active role taken by alumni in recruiting athletes after WWI, and discusses the process by which Griffith was voted in to serve as the first commissioner.  Setting up his office in Chicago, IL, Griffith established the guiding principles of the Western Athletic Conference and spent much time in his first year policing the amateur rule and eligibility, and reporting / investigating violations.

Nonetheless, the Big Ten continued their sports programs to the delight of Major John L. Griffith who advocated competitive athletics as the perfect solution to the growth of socialism and communism.

Chapter 5 features two reviews of college athletics and the NCAA, a “changing of the guard” with big-time college football moving from the eastern to the midwestern teams, the banning of the University of Iowa for recruiting and subsidizing athletes, and Griffith’s belief that control should lie with presidents, faculty boards, and athletic directors, between 1926 and 1930.  Released on October 28, 1929, the Carnegie Report, a three-year project that attained data from 130 colleges, included indictments on recruiting and subsidization. The American Association of University Professors report noted both the benefits and detriments of football.  As a result, Griffith and college presidents defended college sport, pointing to the character traits it afforded.

As noted in Chapter 6, the Stock Market crash in October 1929 forced colleges to cut their budgets.  Still, Griffith continued to promote intercollegiate athletics and promoted his “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy as he disagreed with too much governmental intervention.  Serving as the NCAA president 1933-1937, Griffith faced recruiting scandals, institutional control, subsidization challenges, and opponents of college sport. Griffith criticized the Carnegie Report, while other college presidents investigated athletic programs.  He believed the Western Conference should govern itself versus following the agenda of the North Central Conference.  During the Depression, most colleges dropped their health education program, and many dropped sports that could not support themselves.  But by 1936 football rose up again, basketball served as a major sport, and the Olympics added support to track & field, swimming, and wrestling.

Lindaman focuses on the early years of World War II in Chapter 7.  Griffith contributed to the war by offering policy making advice, serving as a home front booster, and in early 1942, was one of seven individuals named as advisor to the new naval aviation training program.  Following V-5 training beginning in March 1942, instructors assigned to preflight centers trained the first class of aviation cadets.  Skills transferable to battle from nine sports that centered around football were emphasized, and cadets were encouraged to think offensively.  Griffith continued to promote the traits developed by sport to the V-5 program.  Because the war employed increased technology, Griffith viewed physical fitness programs and college athletics as “essential auxiliaries to military preparedness.”

Chapter 8 discusses the status of intercollegiate athletics during World War II, the different stances taken on athletics between the Army and the Navy, the University of Chicago’s withdrawal of all sports from the Western Conference, and Griffith’s death in December 1944.  While the Army refused to allow students involved in the new specialized training program to participate in intercollegiate athletics, the Navy encouraged their students to do so.  Nonetheless, the Big Ten continued their sports programs to the delight of Major John L. Griffith who advocated competitive athletics as the perfect solution to the growth of socialism and communism.

Well research and easy to read, with an excellent flow of information, Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith & the Quest for Athletics and Fitness, by Matthew Lindaman, fills a gap in the history of intercollegiate sport in the United States and I highly recommend it.

Copyright © Susan J. Rayl 2019

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