Review of Association Work

Johnson, Scott. Association Work: Whitten, Porter, and the Course of Interscholastics. Bloomington, IL: Illinois High School Association/National Federation of State High School Associations, 2018. Pp. 406. Notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Robert Pruter

Association Work coverAssociation Work: Whitten, Porter, and the Course of Interscholastics is an important work of sport history. High school sports have played an outsized role in the sports world of Americans for more than a century, but despite their importance in the United States they have not attracted a proportional interest in the field of sport history.  I wrote the first comprehensive history of high school sports, The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880-1930 (2013), and in my research on the book I discovered that the sport history profession indeed has shown little interest in sports below college level. There are many reasons why this is so, but I surmise that college sports are probably considered a sufficient representative for the examination of sports in schools, just more commercialized and maybe more corrupt. The appearance of another strong monograph on high school sports history ideally should be a welcomed addition to sport history literature.

Central to the history of high school sports in America are the two organizations in this history, the  Illinois High School Athletic Association (“Athletic” later dropped) and the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations (”Athletic” later dropped), because it was the two leaders in both organizations, Charles W. Whitten and H. V. Porter, who were almost singularly responsible for the development of the present structure of high school sports.  Structure refers to governance and regulation nationally by the National Federation of State Associations and at the state level by member state associations.

Author Scott Johnson is a long-time assistant executive director of the IHSA, who in researching Association Work, made extensive use of the records of the IHSA but also the personal papers of the two principal protagonists, Whitten and Porter, in researching and writing his institutional history.  I should let readers know that Johnson is a long time colleague and friend based on mutual interest in high school sport history and was my contact in providing many useful documents and publications from the IHSA archives for my high school history.

Johnson chose an interesting approach to writing Association Work, by essentially writing biographies of the two protagonists—Whitten, who ran the IHSAA beginning in 1922 and headed the National Federation beginning in 1927, and concluding both jobs in 1940; and H. V. Porter, who was second in command to Whitten at the IHSAA beginning in 1928 and then headed the National Federation from 1940 to 1958.  Together the two administrators over a thirty-year-period were the principals who developed and shaped the structure of high school sports.  They were personal friends and shared a common mission to have high school sports sponsored and directed by high school educators, and to exclude the colleges, private clubs, and other organizations that were deeply in the business of sponsoring high school sports contests.  They also worked as advocates for competitive sports in high schools, believing that they served a pedagogical purpose in the development of the well-rounded student, intellectually, physically, socially, and morally.

What comes through Johnson’s deeply researched study was that Whitten and Porter, to a certain extent, were making it up as they went along in directing the nascent National Federation, but always with their mission in mind–high school sports under high school educators. Johnson has revealed a face-to-face meeting that Whitten had with Amos Alonzo Stagg not long after the Federation banned his basketball tournament in 1930, which marked the sea change in high school sports to be fully sponsored, directed, and regulated by high school educators. The colleges were ousted out of high school sports sponsorship.  Stagg had a list of questions for Whitten in the meeting, one which Johnson calls the “existential question,” asking Whitten, “what purpose will the Federation have if interstate interscholastic meets are done away with?”  The Federation had been so focused in its ten-year campaign to expel the colleges and clubs from high school sports that Whitten might not even had much of answer. The historical record does not give Whitten’s answer.

But after 1930, the National Federation, with H. V. Porter second in command to Whitten, proceeded to develop itself as a regulatory and guidance organization, some of which fell into its lap, as when the National Federation was excluded from the joint organization football rules committee. Under Porter’s leadership, the National Federation established a role in developing training and instructional materials and most importantly rule books for all the high schools nationwide, beginning with football. And after he became head of the National Federation in the fall of 1940, he expanded the rule books to include all the high school sports. Porter also was behind the creation of the fan backboard and the molded basketball, and served on the National Basketball Committee for more than 30 years, and as a result was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960.  H. V. Porter had films made that were sent out to state association, explaining the National Federation work, providing rules instruction, and the like. Here is one of his films from 1932 on the molded basketball that explained its benefits and how it was manufactured. Throughout his institutional history, Johnson fully shaped in terms of the broader history of high school sports.

In Rise of American High School Sports I devoted one chapter—the most important chapter in the book–to the National Federation campaign to take full control of high school sports. Johnson probably giving fully half his study to the National Federation campaign provides many more details, large and small, that fully explains and with greater nuance the struggle between the high schools and colleges, particularly understanding the thinking of the two protagonists, their philosophy or ideology if you will. The institutional aspects of his study are revealing, such as Whitten’s regular publication sent to all member associations in the National Federation was the IHSAA publication, Illinois High School Athlete­.  Hence the value of the IHSA records in researching the National Federation. When  H. V. Porter succeeded Whitten as the National Federation first full time head in 1940 he moved the National Federation office out of the IHSAA office and moved it (in an office one door away), and established a publication exclusive to the National Federation.

The book, with its dull cover (image of a period postcard that shows the Chicago skyscraper where Whitten had his office) and dull title screams out “institutional history.” But the author is a first rate historian having written about the National Federation in terms of the big issues and directions in the history of high school sports. Because he took a broader approach in his history, he made considerable use of outside sources, notably the Stagg papers at the University of Chicago.  Aside from his aptness at researching history, Johnson is also a superlative writer with his sparkling prose that evokes the drama of the great conflicts in the story even when one knows how they turn out.

Note that I began this review with the assertive statement that Association Work is an important work of sport history. This opinion was not shared by a couple of book review editors.  Johnson had sent queries to the book editors of the International Journal of the History of Sport and the Journal of Sport History and both editors replied that they were not interested in reviewing the book. Apparently a book with a combination of institutional history taint and high school sports as its subject led to the editors’ unfortunate decisions.  Feeling that the sport history field should know about Association Work, I then approached Sport in American History, and thankfully the book editor agreed.

I strongly recommend that any institution that has a general sport history course, the library should be notified that Association Work is an essential addition to their collection. Historians will be consulting Johnson’s outstanding book for many decades hence.

Robert Pruter is a retired reference and government documents librarian from Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois. He has an MA in history degree from Roosevelt University, and has written extensively on high school and amateur sports, contributing entries to a number of reference books and articles and reviews to a variety of journals. His The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880-1930 was published by the Syracuse University Press in 2013.

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