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The Rise of the Gridiron University–Brian M. Ingrassia

This is an academic history of the establishment of big-time football within the university, covering the period from the 1820s to the 1930s. From the growth of physical culture through the 19th century, Ingrassia traces the evolution of the concept of manliness from one of self-discipline to that of force and victory well exemplified on the gridiron.  Ingrassia “argues that intercollegiate football was maintained and reformed in the early 1900s because many university professors and administrators, as well as writers and politicians, saw it as a cultural ritual that, besides training young men in the strenuous ways of modern life, would publicize universities and disseminate prevailing ideas about the body and social order.”(3-4)  He observes that football evolved within the academic world at the same time that large American universities were making a push to stress research over teaching, and he writes that the popularity of the game was seen as a way to sell the ivory tower to the general population. However, many other academics saw the emphasis on lowbrow football as corrupting the mission of the university, and Ingrassia often finds himself agreeing. That debate continues today, but Ingrassia maintains that the permanence of the game within academia, .as circus or sideshow, was firmly established with the advance of professional coaches and the construction of concrete stadiums in the early 20th century, and there is no turning away from football now. He also addresses the progressive era, militarism, sexism, racism, and the effects of the newer disciplines of psychology and social sciences in regard to this topic.

The one review of this very new book that I was able to find agreed on many of these points, but concluded his review by saying, “although thoroughly-researched, this book makes for very dry reading, which will limit its audience to specialists.”(Maxymuk)  I found the book thoroughly enjoyable, with rarely a dull moment throughout, but perhaps this is because of Ingrassia’s relevance to my own research and the many uses I have for this book in the coming months.  Ingrassia’s work was incredibly well researched and I appreciate his dedication to this book for that very reason.  More than once, I found myself reading through his seventy pages of notes and 30 pages of bibliography even more closely than his text because I wanted to get inside the head of an academic with interests so close to my own, and try to understand how he used the scholars before him.  This book will be kept very closely to me throughout my research because it is fresh off the press and has the latest compilation of scholars that are relevant to my project, and because Ingrassia’s ideas and understandings of universities and their football teams is a fantastic resource for me to build from and fill in gaps that were missing from his work.


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