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John L. Griffith: A historical figure who changed sports culture

December 18, 2018

John L. Griffith today is largely lost to sports history. Few know his name. And that’s a shame.

Matthew Lindaman, chairman of the Winona State University’s Department of History, finds Griffith a fascinating figure. His new book — and his first — “Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith & The Quest for Athletics and Fitness” seeks to restore Griffith to what Lindaman regards as his rightful place in historical annals.

Griffith was the Big Ten’s first commissioner, from 1922 until his death in 1945. Few did more to elevate and professionalize the coaching ranks than did Griffith, who promoted his ideas about fitness and athletics through a journal he published during the same time.

Griffith saw fitness among the nation’s youth as not just a thing for its own sake but as a vital national interest, an important measure of preparation in the event of war. He saw organized sports, rather than military drill, as the best way of achieving it. Football players made good soldiers.

Griffith’s high-water mark of influence occurred between the two world wars. In World War I, more than half the men who took the physical fitness efficiency test failed it. Griffith believed that was a problem that needed to be addressed. Though the war was over, he thought it was important to prepare for the next one.

Griffith’s vision was to encourage and nurture a network of physical education instructors who would make America’s youth fit and lean. But they needed to be trained somewhere. That’s where nation’s universities entered the picture, Lindaman said.

Soon after World War I, memorial stadiums began to be built across the country but primarily in the Midwest. They were built in Ohio, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Minnesota. These memorial stadiums paid homage to the nation’s sacrifice during the Great War. But they were also the training centers, the incubators for the nation’s football teams, its physical elite.

These centers also served to educate physical fitness instructors, who would, in turn, return to their colleges and high schools and spread of the gospel of fitness through athletics.

Football, as Griffith saw it, instilled qualities of toughness and athleticism that were essential to the country’s vitality and character. Football teams represented the “vanguard, the model, the elite,” Lindaman said, and through football, those ideals would spill out to the rest of the student population in other sports.

Few today would see collegiate football exactly as Griffith saw it, but some of his ideas still echo through the decades to the present day.

“(Griffith) would argue that the best of American values can be found on the American football field,” Lindaman said. “It’s much more complex today, but you still see that mentality coming through in the coaching ranks, even down to the high school level: (Football) as an absolute character builder.”

When former University of North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora said football’s decline would signal America’s decline, it was message straight from Griffith’s gospel.

Griffith, Lindaman said, anticipated the intersection of media and football in catalyzing the sport’s popularity. He was instrumental in getting radio to cover the sport.

But Griffith was not a fan of all the developments in collegiate sports. A strong proponent of an amateur code and keeping collegiate sports pure, he wanted no part in giving student-athletes scholarships. He believed that it would open to the door to corruption and scandal.

“This is going to sound really bizarre to us today, but coaches could not recruit during the 1920s and ’30s,” Lindaman said.

Griffith was an opinionated man. Being a pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps kind-of-guy, Griffith opposed many government social programs. He also hated communism and stirred fears about the Red Scare, that the radical left was undermining American society during the ’20s and ’30s.

Lindaman’s book, which goes for $29.95 in paperback, is published by Syracuse University Press. The book is available at the Winona State University bookstore and amazon.com or by contacting Syracuse press.

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