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Intercollegiate Athletics

Jack Roosevelt (Jackie) Robinson (attended UCLA 1939-1941), c. 1940.

Intercollegiate athletics play a major role in public colleges and universities throughout the nation. They are a focal point in the life of the campus and they provide entertainment and a strong connection between “town and gown.” Athletics have also become big business with multi-million dollar N.C.A.A. television contracts, college bowl games and the “March Madness” basketball tournament.

The financial importance of athletics has led to a debate about the role of athletics in higher education and whether the economics of athletics has overshadowed the academics of the university.

For most of their history, college sports have connoted teams for men. But historians are finding or rediscovering that there also has been a long, lively tradition of intercollegiate athletics for women. Furthermore, since Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, women as studentathletes have made substantial gains in approaching parity with their male student counterparts in playing varsity sports. This can especially be seen in the popularity of N.C.A.A. women’s basketball. Athletics were also important in the debate over segregation, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when integrated northern teams played or attempted to play against all-white schools in the South. Universities also became incubators for professional sports integration, most notably Jackie Robinson who excelled at football, track and field, basketball and baseball while attending U.C.L.A.

University of Connecticut women’s basketball team playing in N.C.A.A. championship game against the University of Louisville, 2009.

The media attention given to football and men’s basketball, especially as played by the large state universities, has often obscured the variety and rich tradition of sports that do not garner national attention — more than 36 fully funded varsity teams at The Ohio State University, such as field hockey, wrestling, tennis, and fencing. At colleges in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, hockey games attract large crowds and big headlines. At the same time, public colleges in California excel in water polo — so much so that they are the major source of talent for the United States’ Olympic squad in that sport.

Steve Prefontaine, University of Oregon, competing in college track meet, c. 1970.
Wheelchair basketball players from the Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University, Kansas), the Vigilantes, compete in a match against Southwest Minnesota State University, c. 1970.
Lee Kemp, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion at 158 pounds, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, c. 1977.
University of South Dakota women's archery squad, c. 1930.