The Oberlin Experiment

Why the failed revolution of Radical Athleticism may be the great unwritten chapter in American sports history.

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Oberlin College is a Division III school better known for incubating Ph.D.s than pro athletes. Athletic events attract a smattering of fans. The sports teams lose with astounding regularly. The last time the Yeomen made national news was when the football team ended a 44-game losing streak in 2001. Academically, athletes are, taken as a whole, the weakest group on campus, according to a study of athletics at selective schools. Many varsity athletes are outliers on campus; they are generally recruited from traditional jock cultures, and often feel alienated from the rest of a student body so clichéd as a bastion of queer, vegan, hipster progressivism that Gawker dubbed it the “most annoying liberal arts college in the country.”

I was a varsity athlete at Oberlin some 20 odd years ago. I can prove it to you by showing you the team photo on the walls of Philips Gymnasium. There I am, second row, third from left, varsity women’s soccer, 1984. I am a freshman, and my first year in college was also the first year there was women’s varsity soccer at Oberlin. I am proud of that fact, that bit of Title IX history. I am also proud that my teammates and I were not conventional jocks: We had somehow decided to play soccer, perhaps because we had lived in enclaves with lots of international residents or were just fast and coordinated and preferred kicking to spiking. Athletics were lower on the Oberlin ledger in those days; our coach was a philosophy professor. Some of us had never played the game before we joined the college team. We lived in co-ops and smoked pot and won more than we lost — we won, in fact, more than the soccer team today does, even though athletics have since been infused with donor dollars and are filled with professional coaches. The coolest thing about playing soccer then was that the school gave us vouchers for dinner during away games. We would get $6, the same as the football players. The bus would stop at Wendy’s and we would stock up. I always bought extra apple pies to keep in my dorm room.

 

Ten years after I graduated from Oberlin, I returned as a faculty member. So I still go to the gym. Every Wednesday at lunch I walk from my office to Philips to play tennis. A few years ago, I was reading The Oberlin Review, the student newspaper, and scanned this headline: “Time Finally Catches Up With The Militant Nihilist.” The story was an obituary for Jack Scott, athletic director at Oberlin from 1972 to 1974. According to the article, Scott came to Oberlin to alter athletics radically at Oberlin and throughout in the country. He broke many barriers — hiring the first black coaches in the conference, increasing funding for women’s sports — and brought national attention and controversy to campus. Rolling Stone covered it. Time covered it. Sports Illustrated covered it. Howard Cosell did a live broadcast.

Turns out that Oberlin athletics was once run by a man Spiro Agnew called an “enemy of sport.” Turns out that for two years, Oberlin College carried out an earnest and lunatic revolution in collegiate sports. They call it “The Oberlin Experiment,” the only college sports program that ever tried to implement a plan according to the tenets of radical athleticism. Sports scholar Douglas Hartmann calls it the “great unwritten chapter in American sports history.”

“Change is needed in America desperately. We have become a world community and what happens in Chicago, or New Delhi affects us all. What is happening in Oberlin, Ohio, affects us all,” wrote Peter Gent in Rolling Stone.

But four years as an undergraduate and seven as a faculty member, including a stint on the Athletics Committee, and I never heard about any of this. Not a peep.

Facial hair brought Jack Scott to campus. In 1972, Oberlin’s president — a leftist, 35-year-old Oberlin drop-out named Robert Fuller — wanted to overhaul the physical education department. A recent scandal had erupted on campus when a student was expelled from the baseball team because he refused to shave his beard. Fuller wanted sports to line up better with the tenor of the times.

Jack Scott was the obvious choice. The self-proclaimed “guru of jock liberation,” Scott was a leader in an incipient movement that called for humane treatment of athletes, increased funding and opportunities for women athletes, a say by athletes in how their teams should be run, elimination of the profit motive in college sports, and eradication of drug use. In his 1971 book The Athletic Revolution, Scott denounced the then-ubiquitous Lombardian ethic in sports, the “super-masculine, square-jawed, steely eyed John Wayne approach.” Scott was no free love hippie, though. In “Sport and the Radical Ethic” he rejects a mushy counter-culture ethos that calls for “cooperation replacing competition, an emphasis on the process replacing an emphasis on the product, sport as a coeducational activity replacing sport as a stag party, a concern for enjoyment replacing a concern for excellence, and an opportunity for spontaneity and self-expression replacing authoritarianism.” For Scott, that was just the “other side of the same coin” of Lombardism. The radical ethic, his synthesis, “says there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the essence of competitive sport…[It] refuses to view human experience in such a fragmented manner. The radical ethic recognizes the excellence of the outcome as important, but equally important is how that excellence is achieved…”

A high school track star and football player from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Scott was a Goldwater supporter early in the `60s. He radicalized at Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. in sociology, specializing in sports. At Berkeley, he was also the sports editor for the short-lived radical magazine The Ramparts, publishing articles on sports and activism. He taught “Intercollegiate Sports and Education: A Socio-Psychological Evaluation,” a course expected to draw 50 students but instead enrolled 400.

Jack Scott was a protégé of Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociologist and author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete. The black-beret, tight pants, camouflage-wearing Edwards was pure guru material, the kind of guy who sucks others into his orbit and makes you wonder whether his intentions are, after all, so altruistic. Edwards cut a huge figure, influencing a generation of black athletes and activists. Scott, on the other hand, always surprised people by how little a figure he had. Slight, white, glasses-wearing, and balding — nicknamed “Mr. Peepers” by the press — he wore polo shirts and khakis and, while Edwards excoriated “pigs” and “honkies,” Scott called “cats” men.

Edwards and Scott gained national notoriety when they tried to organize a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The boycott sought to bring attention to racism in sports, and called for fair treatment of black athletes. The athletes chose not to walk, but one looming symbolic gesture immortalized the effort: Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos standing, heads down, fists held high, on the Olympic podium. It’s an image that carries as much weight today as does King on the Mall or the crying, squatting woman at Kent State. Most assume the gesture was solely about black power. But Smith and Carlos were also calling for an athletic revolution, and they had been working with Edwards and Scott.

In 1970, with his wife Micki, Scott founded the Institute for the Study of Sport and Society; the head of the NCAA called it the “Woodstock Athletic Association.” The institute’s first book was Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League, an autobiography of the former football star’s career with the St. Louis Cardinals. The book tells the story of how Meggyesy quit at the peak of his career, tired of the racism, drug abuse, and violence in the NFL. The book was shocking in its time and pioneered a slate of books critical of pro sports, such as Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

In April 1972, Oberlin hired Scott after a deal he had made with University of Washington fell through because of Scott’s controversial reputation. The school gave him $16,000 a year and a four-year contract to head the physical education department and serve as athletic director.

“Are you a radical?” a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer asked Scott upon his arrival.

“If radical means rational and humane, then I am a radical.”

Scott hired Tommie Smith as assistant athletic director and quickly set about overturning policies and breaking boundaries.

“Within two to three years there will be an equal commitment to men and women in intercollegiate athletics here,” Scott announced upon his arrival. “There will be greater participation by the 2,500 students in Oberlin’s 13 intercollegiate sports and intramurals, and excellence in athletics.” Students will be involved, because “an athlete shouldn’t have to be a political eunuch to participate in sports.” And he would brook no dissension from the other professors: “I’m not going to tolerate the snobbing attitude of some academics who look down on athletics.”

I am sitting in the musty AV room of the Oberlin library. I am listening to Howard Cosell’s voice.

“Here we are in the venerable middle of the American heartland. But there is nothing traditional, or conservative, about what’s going on here at Oberlin College.”

Cosell is speaking from an empty field on a gray and blustery day in northeast Ohio. The music comes on: pure `70s DayGlo beat. After the teaser, the show cuts to a commercial. For cigars. That’s the telling detail: We are in another time and place in America, not too long ago but long enough ago, a moment that looks like our own but with enough twists and tweaks to render it alien — ads for mild and flavorful cigars on a Sunday afternoon sports magazine show.

I tracked down Cosell’s Sports Magazine television segment on the goings on at Oberlin in the college archives. The tape was on reel-to-reel, so they transferred it to cassette. I had to find a way to listen to it. These days, you can only find a cassette recorder in certain increasingly hard-to-find designated areas. Like cigars, or leftists in sports.

 

Cosell is interviewing Tommie Smith. Five years earlier, Cosell had interviewed Smith right after his podium moment. He asked then what the protest meant.

 

“The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America,” Smith told him. “The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks without shoes, to also signify our poverty.”

Smith was suspended from the Olympic team and blacklisted. He got a lot of street cred from the gesture but not much work. By 1972, he was teaching second grade in San Jose, California. Now he’s suddenly become the assistant athletic director at Oberlin College.

Cosell questions Smith out on the lonely track: “Have you grown less militant?”

“What does militant mean?” Smith asks.

Cosell machine guns a reply: “Don’t spar with me. We’re not going back to 1968, Tommie. A militant is a guy who speaks out in protest, whether by a physical symbol or vocally with a truculent effect or tone of voice against the existing establishment’s procedures. Now with that premise, have you changed?”

“I am a militant,” Smith says.

Cosell is America’s most famous sports reporter, one is tempted to say the Bryant Gumbel or Bob Costas of his day. But the analogy does not quite work. Gumbel and Costas’ earnest intellectualism seems forced; Cosell is the pure product of a time when there were kings to interview. Muhammad Ali, the rise of free agency, Arthur Ashe: Sports and politics run neck-and-neck in America in the early `70s. The vice president speaks out against activist jocks. We remember Vietnam and Watergate and Roe v. Wade, but we seem to have forgotten much of this story.

But that day when Cosell arrives on campus, the revolution is televised and in full swing. Out on that field, on that day in 1973, all the actors are pretty pleased with themselves. Jack Scott, the caudillo, the charismatic leader of this movement, answers Cosell’s questions with a surprisingly staid Mad Men cadence. Cass Jackson, the newly hired black football coach, answers “yes” when asked if he thinks “a black man like you can coach a predominantly white team?” Fuller disagrees with Cosell quipping that the Oberlin antics — such as students having a vote in the selection of their new head coach, Jackson — proves what Nixon recently warned about: We are being too permissive with our youth.

“Isn’t the action of allowing the students to elect a black head coach an example of this?” Cosell asks.

“The students didn’t select; they participated. I think Mr. Nixon’s concern confuses permissiveness with giving students responsibility.”

The Oberlin faculty information card asks Scott to list hobbies. Scott writes: “No separation of work and play.” It also asks about “Wife.” It only asks for wife’s maiden name, college, and interests. Scott crosses out “Wife’s Interests,” scribbles “Wife’s Employment” in its place, and writes “Director of Institute of Sport and Society.”

Before Scott arrived, Oberlin had a well-known physical education department, including a major. In 1970 it still had two different tracks for men and women. The budget for women’s athletics was $1,000. By December 1973, Scott had raised that to $7,000, and quickly women athletes and coaches were clamoring for even more. Title IX meant nothing to them then, but Scott was laying its groundwork.

Scott added new classes: “Sports and the Mass Media,” “Body-Mind Unity through Gymnastics,” “Sports and Literature,” “Sports and Racism,” and “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” For “Sports and Politics” he assigns The Plastic Orgasm, the story of an abused football player, Lombardi: Winning is the Only Thing, The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, and We Are Everywhere by Yippie Jerry Rubin.

Physical education students were the first to have a vote in hiring; today, all departments have students on hiring committees. Scott opened the college facilities to town kids, who were 40 percent black and predominantly poor. And he made all sporting events free to the public.

Most ground-breaking, he hired Smith, still a tainted figure, to coach basketball and be the first black coach in the Ohio Athletic Department, and Cass Jackson, one of the first black head coaches of a NCAA football team.

 

And, in the realm of symbolic politics, if Smith raised a fist, Scott hung a curtain. When Scott arrived Philips Gym had just opened, and Oberlin was inordinately proud of it. One thing, though: There was no locker room for women. There was a faculty changing room and a student changing room, but both were for men. One night Scott and Micki hung a curtain splitting the two male changing rooms, making one side of each for women.

“You want to know what revolt sounds like?” wrote sports journalist Jay Weiner, a self-described disciple of Scott who transferred to Oberlin to study with Scott. “It’s when a chemistry teacher is told he’ll have to dress with the male students and that his racquetball racquet won’t fit in the student-sized lockers.”

In a feature, “Jeepers, Peepers, Look Who Is In Charge,” a Time magazine reporter wrote that “Scott’s progress at Oberlin will have the gripping what-happens-next suspense of a good mystery with many fascinated readers.”

 

But the Time reporter was wrong. The national coverage pretty much stopped then.

“He was a snake, a repulsive man,” remembers tennis coach Don Hunsinger. He was here when Scott arrived, left shortly thereafter, and returned after Scott left.

“His walk and his talk were 180 degrees apart. He treated people worse than objects.”

Hunsinger, a loose, baggy, and slow-walking man, sits slouched in his seat — a well-appointed, leather high back chair in the newly renovated offices of the athletic department. I suspect he wishes I were writing a story about anything other than Jack Scott.

“What an awful part of our history.”

“He was the one of the scariest men I ever met,” says Robert Longsworth, emeritus professor of Engish and, during Scott’s tenure, acting dean of Arts and Sciences. “He advocated humanism in sport, but he didn’t always treat people in a humane way.” While women got a locker room and larger budget, Scott “terrorized” the women coaches into resigning. Local lore has it that an elderly woman coach suffered a fatal heart attack after repeatedly receiving threatening phone calls from Scott at 3 a.m.

Longsworth cuts exactly the figure you expect and hope to meet when you are at Oberlin. Thoughtful, reflective, learned, and kind. I suspect he finds it salutary that a youngish female professor is researching Oberlin’s history; plus, we often play tennis next to each other and thus have formed a jock bond of our own. He has well-chosen adjectives for Scott: “He was inquisitorial, accusatory, edgy.”

And prone to sudden violence. A few weeks after he let the town kids use the gym for free, he beat up a kid he caught peeing outside of Philips. Police were called to subdue Scott more than once.

Hunsinger has only antipathy towards Scott as a person but, along with Longsworth, agrees that “his ideas were positive and creative. He had humanistic values that we at Oberlin had espoused. Unfortunately, those days are gone.”

Scott was too hot for Oberlin, too controversial from the beginning, and had even less support from the faculty after they witnessed his barn-burning tactics. Scott formally resigned in January 1974, forced out by Robert Fuller, who had brought him in only 20 months earlier. “I’m not willing to talk about Jack Scott,” Fuller would state a few years later. “My connection with him is severed.” At the time, he was more politic, stating that Scott “has attracted to Oberlin outstanding physical educators and coaches, and today physical education is one of the most dynamic departments on campus. Jack accomplished in approximately two years what most of us thought would take at least twice that long. He is the type of person that can initiate profound changes, and now that he has achieved them he has consented to move on.”

In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith tells a different story. It was not Scott’s temper and violence that brought the moment to an end, but just another story of racism, of whites being threatened by change.

“When Jack came, there had been only 36 black students enrolled there, and now the black population was up to 10 to 12 percent,” Smith remembers. “They came not just to play, but to be students. They even had black people taking swimming classes. We were teaching students things that had not been taught before. Someone warned them if they didn’t hold back they would be too visible, and that wouldn’t be good for me. He was right. I was too good. Everything was too good.”

Smith says once they got rid of Scott the “black folks there were left wide open, and they laughed and cut us one at a time — whack, Cass; whack, someone else, until finally there was me, the last one.”

Smith wanted to make a life in Oberlin; he married a former student, and “had found what I needed. I thought I would be in Oberlin the rest of my life.” But he was denied tenure, and, in 1978, he too had to leave.

After Scott left Oberlin, he drove Patty Hearst’s getaway car.

Scott moved back to Berkeley, became close with Bill Walton, the counter-culture NBA star, and penned his eponymously titled book. Later that year he would become friendly with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and, it would later come out, chauffeur Patty Hearst from Berkeley to her hideout in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was a main character in our nation’s greatest captivity narrative.

Scott got off free, though many of his friends and former colleagues were later interviewed by the FBI. Two, Jay Weiner and long-time friend Phillip Shinnick, eventually served jail time for their association with Scott and, Shinnick would later claim, to motivate Scott to cooperate with authorities. There’s a lot of murky speculation as to how Scott evaded jail, and the archivist at Oberlin tells me some people are interested in writing Scott’s biography but are afraid to do so.

Scott lived the last 20 years of his life quietly. In 1975 he moved to Oregon and mastered the use of microcurrent therapy, which he used to help athletes heal from injuries.

The other day I found Tommie Smith in the hallway gallery in Philips. I had to crane my head to see the picture. I expected him and his team to look more, well, radical. Joints hanging from lips, maybe, or big pimp hats, or long ponytails and Ahab beards. To stand out amongst the others. But they basically looked like the rest of us on the wall: a few headbands, sure, and thicker glasses, and shorter shorts. But that’s about it. His team is high up on the top row, smushed between other athletes from other teams and other years, lost on the wall of the gym.

“Once I was gone, every trace of what Dr. Fuller and Jack Scott had done was erased,” writes Smith. “Before I left, I had constructed a board to list the school’s track and field records, and had it displayed in the foyer of Philips Field House, along with one of the uniforms I designed. Years later, when I went back, it was gone, taken down; I don’t know when or by whom.”

“It took 20 years to void ourselves of stigma, like that everyone smoked pot in staff meetings,” says Hunsinger. “We could not get Ohio coaches to cooperate with having kids come to Oberlin.” But Hunsinger does wish something could have been done to stop the single-minded emphasis on beating the opponent, the shallow culture of rah-rah. Today he is “ashamed of his profession” for letting things get out of hand, even at sleepy Division III Oberlin: “So much emphasis on winning, so much money spent to enable people to compete and it takes away from what 90 percent of students are there to do. The movement never succeeded.”

“So here at Oberlin you’ve met the people, and have insight into whys and where. I don’t know if it’s going to work but I don’t know why it shouldn’t. Because the essence of this program is lodged in the basics of the American democracy, the Constitution, what this country is supposed to be all about. This is Howard Cosell, signing off from the venerable heart of America.”

 

Good for Oberlin that it, alone amongst collegiate institutions, tried. But it didn’t work. Because of Scott’s morally muddy actions, because of the rise of U.S. News & World Report rankings, because racism is too entrenched, because we all just kind of forgot, and took down the display.

Twenty-five years after it opened, Philips is being renovated. The locker rooms are all being torn up, and I have to walk through warrens of hallways to change for tennis. The courts, in good shape already, were recently redone with a new surface that apparently makes the ball grip the ground better. There’s a new track field and a new soccer stadium. Over in my office building, though, faculty are grumpy because they are cutting faculty positions due to budget constraints.

Today, here in the library, the “stop” key on the Cosell cassette tape recorder makes a very loud, very cool noise when I push it down. I hit it again, this time to eject. A satisfying click resonates in the windowless room on the fourth floor. A rugged, spastic glurp. Then it gets quiet. • 14 December 2007

 

 

Anne Trubek‘s work has appeared in The Believer, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She is the author of Writing Materials: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Trubek is an associate professor of English at Oberlin College. Her website is annetrubek.com.

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