Review of Changing the Playbook

Chudacoff, Howard P. Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. Xii+198. Notes and index. $95.00 clothback, $22.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Alexander D. Hyres

At the 1951 NCAA Convention, University of Pennsylvania athletic director Francis Murray observed, “This very dramatic part of our educational picture which is college football has now gotten to the point where it is more than the sports department of the university. It now becomes part of the public relations division of the university” (p. 50). While most contemporary observers of college sports will not be surprised by Murray’s message, the messenger and his context may surprise them. The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League member, is not considered a heavy influencer amongst NCAA member schools today. Nor would many view the current UPenn football team as a major public relations tool when compared to other higher education institutions. However, at many—if not most—division one schools today, the football team does serve as a significant part of the public relations division. Division one administrators may feel uncomfortable with this reality; however, most benefit from the reality described by Murray many decades ago.

Changing the Playbook

University of Illinois Press, 2015

Howard P. Chudacoff’s Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports illuminates how such views have become the norm in higher education institutions. Chudacoff engages contemporary conversations surrounding college sports’ transformation by tracing the modern era’s origins and evolution. He claims, “During the past six decades or so, American institutions of higher learning and their athletic programs have increasingly found themselves living in an uneasy coexistence with sports; while the sports establishment pushes for every advantage, those in charge of higher education accept the glory but are embarrassed by their obsession with it” (p. 2). This paradox underpins the book and manifests one of the core issues facing American universities and colleges today. Despite his claim, Chudacoff deals most directly with division one sports. He claims, “Though ‘money sports,’ chiefly football and men’s basketball, often take center stage, they do so in a broader context of the evolution of college sports generally” (p. 4). Although this claim, including sports beyond football and men’s basketball, seems plausible, Chudacoff does not offer enough evidence to substantiate it. Examples and evidence from division one college football and basketball predominantly underpin the arguments offered by the book.     

Changing the Playbook relies heavily on secondary sources to trace college sports’ evolution. Although he consults some primary source material—newspapers, court cases, and NCAA documents—Chudacoff constructs the majority of his narrative by synthesizing other scholars’ work. This reliance, however, should not be viewed as a weakness. He embraces this position by declaring, “By synthesizing the narrative of college sports history 1950, I hope to convey a fuller understanding of how and why ‘game changers’ have created today’s intercollegiate athletic landscape” (p. 2) Scholars hoping for more primary source research may be disappointed; however, the bibliography offers plenty for those readers hoping for greater depth into the topics covered by the book.

Organized by topic and chronology, this slim volume grapples with important moments and developments in the evolution towards today’s college sports landscape. Evolution should not be viewed as foregone or linear, though. In chapter one, Chudacoff traces and locates the origins of the modern era in college sports with the Sanity Code’s abolition in the 1950s. This abolition ultimately led to the current separation between the academic and athletic missions of higher education institutions. In chapter two, he describes racial integration efforts, failures, and successes. Incidents of “black athletes in revolt” during the late 1960s and 1970s possess some strong parallels between more recent events such as last year’s protests at the University of Missouri. In the third chapter, he investigates television’s impact on college sports—especially division one college football and basketball. Universities and colleges were initially concerned with television’s impact on ticket revenues; however, as the possibilities for financial windfall became apparent, they realized revenue was revenue.

Chapter four analyzes the impact of the Board of Regents v. NCAA. This ruling against the NCAA “thrust college football television into a free market and recognized that big-time college sports was indeed big-time business” (p.74). College football television coverage has increased exponentially since this ruling. Chapter five recounts the Civil Rights Acts’ passage and Title IX enforcement attempts. Chudacoff elucidates the contested and contingent path to greater gender equality in college sports. In chapter six, he illuminates student-athlete’s devolution. He recounts scandals from different times and places, including the Southern Methodist University football program in the 1980s and the cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina in the past few decades, to reveal the relative continuity of scandal within the modern NCAA system. Chapter seven describes the interplay between media coverage of college sports and money in higher education. Chudacoff contends, “It is the blend of celebrity with business under the media spotlight that sharply separates athletics from academics in today’s higher education” (p. 142). The final chapter offers, based on the book’s historical findings, suggestions for reforming the NCAA. Chudacoff proposes protecting student athletes’ scholarships for four to five years, making freshman eligible for scholarships and ineligible for competition, removing limits on student athletes outside income, and providing greater access to “legitimate and useful majors” (p. 160). Indeed, those who follow college sports and their current state will not find much original in his suggestions for reform.

Changing the Playbook addresses two main audiences. Anyone seeking entry into this topic or a general overview will find this book most helpful. The accessible and fluid prose will keep lay audiences engaged with the subject matter. From a teaching perspective, this book should be added to survey course syllabi in higher education and American sport history for undergraduates. In addition to informing lay audiences and undergraduates, Chudacoff also aims to influence policymakers. While the historical lens may be an effective tool within the academy, I am skeptical that the NCAA and higher education policymakers will actually take note of the book’s reform suggestions. This skepticism has less to do with the actual suggestions and more to do with the NCAA and higher education policymaker’s conservative stance towards change.


Alexander Hyres is a graduate student in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Virginia. As a historian of education, his research interests include African American experience, leadership, and urban education policy. He can be reached at adh2rg@virginia.eduand on Twitter @hyres376.

One thought on “Review of Changing the Playbook

  1. Pingback: College Football Playoff Roundtable | Sport in American History

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