By Paul Emory Putz
The resistance to Donald Trump’s vision of America is diverse. There are former CIA operatives, rogue government employees, the Merriam-Webster social media manager, woke babies, and millions of marching women. The world of athletics has gotten involved as well, with coaches like Greg Popovich and Steve Kerr speaking out. The most outspoken coaches, however, have tended to come from the basketball ranks; few, if any, big-time football coaches have seen fit to speak out.
This is probably no surprise. Football coaches, after all, tend towards authoritarianism and “law and order,” have an obsessive focus on winning, and – in the college ranks at least – benefit financially from grossly under-compensated labor. Sound familiar?
Still, perhaps some football coaches are considering speaking out against Trump’s more exclusionary view of America. If so they can find inspiration in the past from the father of football coaching himself, Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Stagg is known for many things, but social justice is usually not one of them. The “Grand Old Man of Football,” born when Abraham Lincoln was in office, lived through Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964. In between he became a football immortal. He played for the legendary 1888 Yale football team, pioneered the role of professional college football coach, helped form the Big 10 conference, and spent four decades at the helm of a powerful University of Chicago football program. When all that was finished he spent another twenty-six years in the coaching ranks, finally hanging up his whistle in 1958 at age ninety-six.
To football enthusiasts Stagg exemplifies team spirit, character, and the amateur ideal. He molded boys into men, and did it with integrity. It is telling that NCAA Division III – the “purest” of the NCAA divisions, with reigned in football programs and no athletic scholarships – names its championship game the “Stagg Bowl.”
Some sport historians take a more critical view. They see Stagg as a masterful manipulator who fashioned a reputation for integrity while simultaneously forging the monster that is big-time college football: the winning-is-everything ethos, the prioritizing of athletics over education, the deification of the coach. Their Stagg is exactly the sort of coach who, if he engaged in politics at all, would have used his influence to champion Prohibition – which Stagg did, testifying on its behalf to Congress in the 1920s.
But for all that has been written about Stagg, good or bad, there is at least one incident that has escaped the notice of historians. It happened in April 1945, four months before the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Stagg organized a campaign on behalf of Japanese Americans.
In 1945 the eighty-two-year-old Stagg lived in Stockton, California, coaching the College of the Pacific Tigers. A seven-win campaign in 1943 earned Stagg national Coach of the Year honors, but in 1944 his Tigers fell to 3-8. The season wrapped up around the same time that President Roosevelt suspended the infamous Executive Order 9066, setting in motion the release of hundreds of thousands of interned Japanese Americans.
For incarcerated Japanese American citizens whose constitutional rights had been violated, returning home was no easy prospect. War still raged in the Pacific, heightening racist views of Japanese Americans that had been widely embraced on the west coast since the late nineteenth century. Aware of possible tensions, a group of Stockton’s white residents held a meeting in April 1945 to discuss the re-settlement of Japanese Americans into the community.
Stagg, the city’s most prominent resident, presided over the meeting. After preparing for his role by re-reading the Constitution, Stagg proposed a resolution that pledged to “stand against intolerance and discrimination because of origin, race, or creed” and to accept all groups “as equal partners in our national life as a matter of simple justice.” It was unanimously adopted.
To be sure, a single resolution could hardly undo the damage already done. Yet, it was not mere window dressing; it was a shot fired on behalf of a more inclusive vision of America. As the local press in Stockton continued to drum up anti-Japanese sentiment, and as the Stockton division of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) refused to open its membership to returning Japanese Americans, it was important for someone like Stagg to organize meetings and pass resolutions supporting fair treatment of all citizens.
Not only did Stagg help organize and lead such a group, he also tapped two of his most powerful friends to support the cause: Secretary of War Henry Stimson (a fellow Yale graduate from the class of 1888), and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (whom Stagg coached on the University of Chicago’s 1898 track and field team).
“Stimmy,” as Stagg called Henry Stimson, was a surprising choice for an ally. He had played a decisive role in President Roosevelt’s decision to issue Executive Order 9066 in the first place. But that fact apparently made him more useful to Stagg, who telegraphed Stimson in April urging him to send a personal message of support on behalf of Japanese Americans since, as Stagg put it, Stimson’s department “was responsible for their withdrawal from California.” Stimson demurred. He sent along a canned statement issued by the War Department, declining to offer any statement under his own name. Stagg forged ahead anyway.
Ickes’s involvement in Stockton came a month later. In May, the national leadership of the ILWU responded to the Stockton division’s exclusion of Japanese Americans by revoking their charter until they reversed course. Ickes, who steadfastly (if privately) opposed Japanese American internment from the beginning, sent a telegram to Stockton supporting the national ILWU’s actions. The telegram caught Stagg’s eye. He shared it with his informal citizens group, and then wrote to thank his former student for the “heartening effect” that the telegram had on the Stockton citizens who were defending Japanese Americans. Ickes wrote back praising Stagg for being “on the firing line for good citizenship.”
Ickes had long idolized Stagg, whom he ranked as one of “the few great persons whom I have known.” In Ickes’s view, coaches like Stagg held a unique position of influence that extended well beyond the football field. Not only did they turn boys into men, they had the stature within their communities to promote “good citizenship.” Since, according to Ickes, coaches were essential to the protection and promotion of American democracy, it was only natural that a football coach like Stagg would lead the charge for fair treatment of all citizens. In Stockton, California, in the spring of 1945, Stagg seemed to do exactly that.
Lest we, like Ickes, fall under Stagg’s spell, a few caveats are in order. First, Stagg’s voice was conspicuously silent on Japanese American internment in the years before 1945. He may have turned to Stimson for a word of support in 1945 with the end of the war in sight, but when he wrote to Stimson in 1943 he made no mention of internment. Instead he asked Stimson for help getting the Army to relax its restrictions prohibiting soldiers in the U.S. from competing in college athletics.
Second, Stagg’s views did not escape the racist patterns typical of many white Americans. Black players never competed for his University of Chicago football teams; he told an African American sportswriter in the 1920s that he did not oppose integrated football teams but that he believed most blacks lacked the aggressiveness and determination to succeed in the sport. When Stagg left Chicago for Stockton in 1933, the city’s leading African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, joyously proclaimed Stagg’s departure a net good for the city’s African Americans.
It is unclear if Stagg’s attitudes towards African Americans evolved in the wake of World War II. Even if they did, his earlier positions cannot be ignored. Still, with the two caveats above fully in view, Stagg’s support for Japanese Americans is worth recognizing. Here was a famous football coach using his considerable influence in support of social justice and fair treatment for all citizens, with no obvious benefit to the on-field success of his team.
One of the enduring myths of American sports is the idea that they help to instill democratic values. Historians are rightly skeptical of such claims, pointing out the many instances in which sports have been deployed in support of hierarchies of race, class, and gender. But even if democratic values are not intrinsic to sports, there is nevertheless the potential that those involved with sports can use their positions of influence to, as Stagg put it in 1945, “stand against intolerance and discrimination because of origin, race, or creed,” and accept all groups “as equal partners in our national life as a matter of simple justice.”
With a new President following through on campaign promises for a less inclusive America – and with a Trump surrogate even pointing to Japanese American internment as a possible precedent for a national Muslim registry – perhaps a celebrity football coach (or two) in our time will see fit to follow this overlooked piece of Stagg’s complex legacy.
The details of Stagg’s campaign in Stockton come primarily from letters and scrapbooks in the Amos Alonzo Stagg papers held at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. I conducted research in the Stagg papers this summer thanks to support provided by a Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowship.
Paul Putz is a PhD Candidate in history at Baylor University. His research is focused on religion, sports, and region, and he is writing a dissertation on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. You can follow him on Twitter @p_emory.