The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten Conference, and was a football powerhouse from 1895 until 1946. They were, indeed, the original “Monsters of the Midway,” having won two national championships and seven Big Ten championships. Jay Berwanger, a halfback at the U of C, was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1935.
In 1939, however, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the U of C, decided football had become too important. He feared it was overshadowing academics, and so he began a controversial movement to end the program. In 1946, the U of C left the Big Ten and the football program was discontinued. Football returned to the U of C as a club sport in 1963, and a varsity team—but only at the Division III level—was reinstated in 1969.
In the New York Times, Bruce Fleming, a 23-year veteran professor at the Naval Academy, calls for a similar transformation. He argues that the commitment to athletics has become a distraction—even, in the Naval Academy’s obsession to beat Notre Dame in football—an unhealthy one. He argues that it has led the Naval Academy and the other academies to water down standards, to the point where their academic programs are no more challenging, and no more more likely to produce top-flight military leaders, than R.O.T.C. programs around the country.
He thinks things are so bad that he issues an ultimatum: either downgrade the athletics to far-less-competitive Division III status, or end the military academies altogether.
I vote for the former. I don’t know if things are as bad as Fleming says, but if the U of C’s experience is any indication, colleges can flourish academically without D-I academics. Perhaps it is time for Robert Gates to become the next Robert Maynard Hutchins.