Review of Democratic Sports: Men’s and Women’s College Athletics during the Great Depression

Austin, Brad. Democratic Sports: Men’s and Women’s College Athletics during the Great Depression. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2015. Pp. 268. Notes, essay on sources, and index. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

In recent years terms such as “fairness” and “justice” have dominated debates about college sports. While defenders of the status of quo insist an education serves as a fair return for a star athlete who fills the stands and stat sheet, advocates of reform question the justness exorbitant salaries for coaches who can leave for another job with no personal repercussions. Somewhat curiously, the word “democracy” has remained absent in these debates, despite the fact that fairness and justice represent democratic values. In contrast, “democracy” dominated college sport debates in the 1930s, as recounted in Brad Austin’s Democratic Sports: Men’s and Women’s College Athletics during the Great Depression.


University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

The resemblances between 1930s and 2010s college sport conversations and controversies are evident at the outset of Austin’s book. Throughout his text, descriptions of the various politicized debates about the purpose of the college sport and the merits, or lack thereof, of their increasing commodification seem to represent the roots of our contemporary moment. Yet, by focusing on “democracy” Austin offers a more nuanced history that appreciates the specificity of the 1930s. The financial instability of the Great Depression and government expansion of the New Deal challenged the traditional political and social conceptions of democracy. Austin demonstrates how college sports served as an arena for advancing different definitions of democracy, as men’s and women’s sport leaders strategically claimed their visions of sport “democratic.”

He chronicles the institutional and administrative battles over men’s and women’s sport at a diverse sample of public universities – the University of California, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas, the University of Tennessee, and the Ohio State University. While Austin admits archival holdings motivated his choices, he also argues that his focus on public universities represents a key contribution of his research.  Not only were such schools beginning replacing private colleges as athletic powerhouses in the 1930s, but, as Austin purports, “Where better to evaluate the goals and lessons of democratic sport than in the institutions created by the people and their representatives, institutions that existed to serve the citizens of particular states?,” (xxiii). His selections prove effective at they together reveal the classed, racialized, gendered dimensions of what constituted “democratic” sport. However, as the current state of hyper-commercialized and increasingly inequitable college sport indicates, efforts to honor “democracy” through the practices, policies, and priorities of college sport leaders did not necessarily produce truly democratic sports at U.S. universities.

Austin begins by reviewing the financial straits faced by universities during the Great Depression. By detailing many of the financial cuts universities’ instituted in his opening chapter, “In the ‘Trough of a Depression’,” Austin provides context for appreciating the significance of maintaining athletic programs and athletic department budgets throughout the 1930s. His subsequent chapters examine the “complex combination of political crucial combination of institutional, political, ideological, communal and commercial values” that ensured the survival of college sports (p. 30). In chapter two, Austin exposes the commercial values that motivated the preservation and expansion of college sport. As the title of the chapter, “Financed by Football,” reveals, college football served as the primary revenue producer for universities in 1930s. While sports that did not possess profitability potential encountered cutbacks, football cemented its privileged status on university campuses.

However, Austin emphasizes that preexisting arrangements, rather than profitability, often protected football from financial cuts. The expansion of college football in the 1920s led universities to invest in large stadiums. Justifying these sunk costs required not only maintaining football but also better utilizing its commercial potential during the Depression. Thus, although seemingly contradictory during a time of financial hardship, commercialization of college football expanded during the 1930s. Efforts to increase revenue by public universities included scheduling games against prestigious schools, such as when Yale visited the University of Georgia in 1929, or hiring big name coaches who encouraged exciting styles of play, exemplified the University of Texas’s hirings in the 1930s; they first hired former Notre Dame star Jack Chevigny before replacing him with University of Nebraska athletic director and head coach Dana X. Bible.

Yet, profitability did not always prevail. Austin describes the cancellation of the successful Ohio State-Notre Dame series in 1936 due to the fact that the game had become a symbolic battle over the merits of Catholicism, with Ohio State representing anti-Catholicism and Notre Dame defending the Catholic faith. According Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John, Catholic students and faculty at Ohio State cheered for Notre Dame, which discouraged the community unity he and other college football leaders envisioned the sport providing during the Depression. The hope that college sports would strengthen communal ties introduces one of the manifestations of “democracy” desired by advocates. In subsequent chapters, Austin further explicates the contested democratic ideals that characterized college sport.

In chapter 3, “Competitive Democratic Athletics for Men,” he demonstrates how debates about men’s college sport and the values it supposedly encouraged acted as proxies for larger debates about the values that should direct the nation out of the Depression. College sports’ most committed advocates were stringent anti-New Dealers who viewed competitive college sport as training ground for young men who would one day lead the nation’s free market democracy. Austin provides a plethora of statements from Ohio State coach Archie Griffin and his contemporaries that evince the politicized character of college sport debates. For instance, University of Wisconsin president Glenn Frank “pointed out the need for competition and sportsmanship in the ranks of American business, finance and politics; and he argued that university athletics could be, as the Greek games once were, ‘a force for democracy, for self-control, for honesty, for patience, and for temperate living’” (p. 101).

Frank’s statement, like others made by the white male leaders in big-time college sport, also exposes the racial assumptions underlying these debates. Austin does not directly address this racial subtext; nonetheless, the evidence he provides makes clear that defending the merit of college sport served as a strategy to preserve white male supremacy against racial integration, as well as campus radicalism. The classed, racial, and gendered character of “democracy” is made more evident when Austin turns to women’s sport in chapters four and five, “Communal Values and Women’s Sport” and “‘The Instinctive Urge to Compete.’” Whereas competition epitomized democracy for white men, equal opportunities for all exemplified democracy for white women. Austin again avoids explicitly discussing the role of whiteness in determining the definition of democratic sport for women. Yet, the University of Maryland’s point system for female athletes, which awarded points for cleanliness, good posture, and a high GPA, and the requirement by the University of California Women’s Athletic Association that female athletes sleep eight hours a night, eat three balanced meals, avoid candy and sweets, and bathe daily imply racialized conceptions of appropriate female athleticism.

While women’s sport leaders presumed racial exclusivity, their otherwise inclusive vision of women’s sport more closely adheres to conventional conceptualizations of democracy. However, instituting democratic sport for female athletes proved difficult. In chapter five, his best chapter, Austin characterizes women’s college sport as an atmosphere of experimentation, with female athletes often pushing more conservative leaders to expand competitive opportunities. Austin’s discussions of women’s rifle clubs and Ohio State’s national intercollegiate golf tournament together reveal how female athletes and women’s sport officials attempted to navigate restrictions against competition. Although Austin does not explicitly identify it, publicity serves as a controlling variable in determining what was or was not appropriate competition. The University of Maryland’s women’s rifle clubs provided women with the opportunity to gain positive recognition through sport, yet these competitions took place telegraphically, meaning women did not directly compete against each other or in front of fans. The relative privacy of riflery even permitted California’s Western Athletic Association women’s team to compete against the men’s ROTC team in 1935.

In contrast, opposition to the intercollegiate golf tournament organized by women’s sport educators at Ohio State stemmed from its public aspect. Austin emphasizes how the 1941 golf tournament, which also would require establishing a women’s NCAA, “was not radical in its stated values or goals, only in its proposed existence” (p. 164). Led by Gladys Palmer, Ohio State physical educators cleverly promoted the women’s NCAA and national golf tournament by accentuating how they would further bolster women’s sport against the ills of competition. They insisted that national competitions would not pose a threat because of how successful women’s sport educators had been in making young women aware of the dangers of competition. Austin thus argues that the opposition to the NCAA and tournament derived from the professional priorities of women’s sport leaders, who did not want their privileged position usurped by the Ohio State women and other members of the younger, more progressive generation of physical educators, rather than concern about violating anti-competitive practices.

Ohio State’s national golf tournament, which was held in spite of criticism, and other experimentive women’s sport activities productively complicate the often homogeneous depiction of constricted women’s sport. Austin’s discussions of the role tension experienced by women’s physical education leaders also refreshingly takes these women, their concerns, and their self-interests seriously. Capturing how the debates about the golf tournament communicated competing visions of “democratic” sport for women, he states, “Wheres spokeswomen for professional organizations argued that democratic equality was achieved by offering all women exactly the same facilities and the same level and amount of instruction, Ohio State leaders contended that equality occurred only when all students had the same chances to play games with other athletes of their own skill level, (p. 162-3). Yet, Austin’s survey of women’s college sport in the 1930s ultimately suggests that “femininity” not “democracy” governed women’s sport practices, as the strength of gender ideologies rather than competing definitions of democracy curtailed the expansion and acceptance of competitive opportunities for female athletes.

In chapter six, Austin returns to the commercialization and communalism of college sport. As briefly touched on in chapter two, college sport proponents justified commodification by framing the commercialization of college sport as a democratizing effort that strengthened community ties. Austin borrows Benedict Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities” to argue that the actions of college sport officials represented an attempt to create and expand the “imagined community” of universities. While Anderson pinpointed print journalism as the key force in fostering nationalism among citizens, Austin identifies a variety of commercial efforts that similarly disseminated information about college sport teams to alumni, fans, and community members. He further suggests college athletics “operated in many ways as an extension service, bringing the university, its people, its passion, and all that these things came to symbolize to the public that the university existed to serve” (p. 180). Along with alumni clubs and publications, schools scheduled more high-profile games to attract community interest, allowed companies to advertise in stadiums on game days, and broadcast games on the radio.

Despite protestations, these initiatives proved successful as college sport emerged from the Depression years as a more strongly entrenched aspect of university life. One of Austin’s final anecdotes best captures how athletic teams not only had solidified their place in the university but also the broader community. In the mid-1930s, concerns about filling seats in recently expanded stadiums, as well as maximizing ticket revenue, inspired several conferences and teams to ban radio broadcasts. When the University of Tennessee banned broadcasts, public opposition led the Tennessee House of Representatives to pass House Resolution Number 2, which framed radio broadcasts of athletic events as a taxpayer right. According to Austin, this stance “indicated that the universities had successfully made their cases that they and, most especially, their athletes represented and served their entire state’s population” (p. 200).

Austin concludes by listing a series of questions that summarize the debates about 1930s college sports: “How do universities finance their intercollegiate programs? How do they connect their athletic programs to education and character building? How do big time athletics effect the formation and operation of communities?” (p. 204). The answers to these questions remain contested. Although the contemporary parallels Austin discusses in his conclusion, many of which are from 2010, seem dated in 2016, his text nonetheless provides important context for present day squabbles. His book demonstrates that college athletics is a dynamic institution whose criticisms and controversies mirror the wider political, social, and cultural disagreements of the respective historical moment.

Democratic Sports does not provide guidance for addressing today’s college sport controversies; yet, Austin’s history does teach us a lesson – debates about college sports are about more than sports. In the 1930s, they served as way to promote differing visions of democracy, with some groups, primarily male college leaders who favored competition and commercialism, more successful than others, namely female athletes and their advocates who desired expanded competition for women. As noted, these debates served as proxies for larger conversations about the appropriate role of the free market and women in the United States. Thus, today’s battles about fairness and justice, which span from compensation for athletes to rights for transgender athletes to racial and gender diversity in coaching and administrative position, are worth waging as they contribute to broader societal debates about what fairness and justice mean for persons of all racial, gender, and sexual identities.


Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at

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