I wove interchapters into my dissertation. These 2000 word or so sections were really vignettes focused on individuals that embodied the theoretical and pedagogical argument I was constructed: that athletics and academics are twin and mutually beneficial arts. Inspired by Isocrates’s 4th century BCE text Antidosis and, much more recently, by Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece, I pulled from my near decade experience of working in Division I athletics to argue for the unification of athletics and academics in American higher education. Wanted to get more concrete in my writing, I offered vignettes of people who capture this unification. Here I offer one interchapter, one vignette: a brief study of the 28th President of the United States, former Governor of New Jersey, former professor and president at Princeton, and ardent football supporter Woodrow Wilson.


Thirty-three years following the first football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency of the prestigious Ivy League university, returning to a school where he had contributed to the 1878 national championship football team.  Despite losing 6-4 to Rutgers on that historical day in 1869, Princeton went on a tear in the second half of the nineteenth century. While the first football game “made very little impression on the College at large . . . and there are almost no records” (Presbery and Moffatt 27), the Rutgers Targum provides a detailed first-person account of the contest.  See page 271 in James Presbery and James Hugh Moffatt’s Athletics at Princeton: A History to read this account by the Rutgers student newspaper. When Wilson came Princeton in 1890 as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy for an annual salary of $3,000, he came to a school with a proud and storied football tradition: a staggering 237-22-12 record and 20 national championships. During Wilson’s eight years at the helm of Princeton, he sent a representative to a 1905 meeting requested by President Theodore Roosevelt, which eventually resulted in the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (later renamed the NCAA) in 1906, saw his Tigers win two more national championships, contributed to the Graduate Committee on Athletics. He even “found time to attend [football] practice two or three times a week and discuss the game intelligently with players and coaches” (Bragdon 40). In regards to his contribution to the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Wilson wrote the following note to Henry Mitchell MacCracken a few days prior to the meeting called for by President Roosevelt: “I need not assure you of our very deep interest in the whole question of the reform of the game of foot ball [sic].  We have of course been giving it very careful and very extended consideration. We have, indeed, come to conclusions so definite and comprehensive that we could go into such a conference that proposed for the 28th of December only to urge our own conclusions” (The Papers Vol. 16 272). The meeting was held on the 29th of December, and the progenitor of the NCAA was founded in 1906. His love of football was so deep that, according to a popular anecdote at the time, “Once on the train from New York to Princeton, Wilson become so interested in telling [Philip Rollins, a Princeton alum] about variations of mass plays and Rollins was so absorbed that they missed Princeton Junction and had to go on to Trenton” (Bragdon 463 n.29).

Prior to being president of Princeton, Wilson coached football at Wesleyan; after Princeton, before and after assuming the presidency of the United States, Wilson wove athletic metaphors throughout his speeches and writings on government and education. He was the first president to attend a World Series game, and the first president to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game. Wilson illustrates the productive cohesion of athletics and academics.

Following a short stint as an undergraduate at Davidson College, the young Woodrow Wilson, who at the time was going by his first name “Thomas,” left Davidson for Princeton where wrote for and edited The Princetonian, joined the debating club Whig, and pledged membership into the eating club the Alligators.  But what really excited Wilson was the rising interest in American style football, and he was known to shout “himself hoarse watching the manly combat that was Princeton football” (Maynard 10).  During his sophomore year, Princeton began playing its first schedule of games against other colleges. A year later, a young Wilson was elected Secretary for the Football Association at Princeton, a position that required him to raise money for the sport and exposed him to the financial side of athletics which would aid him later in his career as a faculty member of the Faculty Committee on Outdoor Sports and the Graduate Advisory Council.

During the 1878 football season, Wilson “not only took care of the practical business of finances and arranging games but had a part in coaching” (Bragdon 39).  Friend and fellow member of the Alligator Club remembers Wilson with football captain Earl Dodge working out plays on a tablecloth. To cover the ever-rising costs associated with football, Wilson, as the Secretary of the Football Association, raised the “admission fee . . . to an unprecedented sum of fifty cents” (Bragdon 40).   He used the extra revenue accrued over the season to cover baseball expenses, leading Henry Wilkinson Bragdon to comment that this financial move may have been the “first recorded example of the now universal practice of using football gate receipts to support other sports” (40).  Princeton won their eighth championship in 1878 and Wilson “surely contributed” (Bragdon 39).

After graduating from Princeton, a bastion of athletics and academic excellence, Wilson wandered somewhat aimlessly around the south, inwardly debating, as many college graduates do, the next move. He briefly attended law school at the University of Virginia and practiced in Atlanta. Yet, he yearned to devote himself back to scholarship and received a Ph.D. in history and political science from Johns Hopkins in 1886 where he wrote a dissertation titled “Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics.” As a newly minted Ph.D., Wilson was a visiting lecturer at Cornell, taught for three years at Bryn Mawr, and then settled at Wesleyan where he renewed his love for football. A former player remembers Wilson giving a pep talk to the team before the Princeton-Wesleyan game in which he “put emphasis on speed in running plays” (Bragdon 172). Seward V. Coffin, the director of the football association at Wesleyan, provides the following narrative of Wilson’s influence on the Wesleyan football team: “Then we held meetings of the TEAM [sic] in Prof. Wilson’s recitation room and made the plans on the blackboard. We planned, every time, a series of 5 or 6 plays to be used, without signal, at the beginning of which ever half we had the kick-off” (qtd. in Bragdon 172).

Largely based on the success of his work Congressional Government published by Houghton Mifflin in 1885—which many thought was the “feat of a prodigy” (Cooper, Jr. 48)—Wilson landed himself at Princeton. While lecturing four times a week, as well as writing heavily, Wilson led a spirited defense of football which had recently come under attack for being violent and distracting students from academic pursuits. Speaking in front of an alumni group, Wilson argued “Foot-ball is a manly game [and] [a]thletics are a safety valve for animal spirits” (qtd. in Cooper Jr, 66).

Wilson’s dedication to athletics was even reflected in his more planned addresses.  On October 21, 1896, the 150th anniversary of the charter of the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton), Wilson delivered the major address titled “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” in front of 15,000 attendees including then-President Grover Cleveland, which was later described as an “oratorical triumph” (Cooper, Jr. 72).  Heeding his wife’s advice to “aim for something lofty, like John Milton’s Aeropagitica” (Maynard 44), Wilson moved through the history of Princeton before dwelling on pedagogy. Wilson used the occasion to weave athletics and pedagogy into the oratorical performance. Captivating the audience, he stressed that “A cultured mind is a mind quit of its awkwardness, eased of all impediment and illusion, made quick and athletic in the acceptable exercise of power” (The Papers Vol. 10 27). When Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton in 1903, he returned to this a metaphor in an address titled “The Meaning of a Liberal Education” given to the New York City High School Teacher’s Association in 1909:

Take the gymnasium. I think the gymnasium is intensely practical, and that everybody ought to make more or less use of the gymnastic apparatus. [People using the gymnasium] are doing simply this: they are getting their nerves and muscles in such shape, they are getting the red corpuscles in the blood so encouraged and heartened, that afterwards they can stand the strains of business . . . and come out of the greatest trials in possession of their full resiliency and return again to health and efficiency. That is what makes the gymnasium intensely practical; it is meant that those who use it shall be in fighting trim and conquer the world so far as their bodies are concerned.

Let that serve as a figure for a liberal education. A liberal education consists in putting the mind in such shape that all its powers, like the muscles of the body, will have been called into exercise, will have been given a certain degree of development . . . so that the mind will not find itself daunted in the midst of the tasks of the world any more than the body itself, and will be able to turn itself in the right direction, even as the athlete, quickly and gracefully, not overwhelmed by the strain, and able to accommodate the several faculties so that they will unite in carrying the strain. The thing is a mere figure of speech, but it is a figure of speech which in some degree illuminates the matter which I want to elucidate for you. (The Papers Vol. 18 599)

Following Wilson’s powerful addresses, he turned down an offer to assume the presidency at the University of Virginia and soon found himself president of his alma mater.  From his lofty position at Princeton, he moved in to the Governor’s mansion of New Jersey and then in to the White House. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Wilson’s oratorical performances, given in front of the leading politicians and academics of the time and intertwining education and gymnastics, were the impetus for his meteoric rise.

Works Cited

Bragdon, Henry Wilkinson. Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years. Cambridge: Belknap P, 1967. Print.

Cooper, John Milton Jr. Woodrow Wilson. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: U of Texas P, 2004. Print.

Isocrates. Antidosis. Trans. George Norlin. Vol. II. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1929. 179-367. Print.

Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Vol. 10 (1896-1898). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Print.

—. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Vol. 16 (1905-1907). Princeton: Princeton UP, Print.

—. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Vol. 18 (1908-1909). Princeton: Princeton UP, Print.

Maynard, W. Barksdale. Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to Presidency. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Presbery, Frank, and James Hugh Moffatt. Athletics at Princeton: A History. New York: Frank Presbery C, 1901. Print.


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