Kurt Kemper

College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era

University of Illinois Press 2009

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SportsNew Books Network May 20, 2011 Bruce Berglund

When we think of sports and the Cold War, what typically comes to mind are steroid-fueled East German swimmers, or the Soviets’ controversial basketball...

When we think of sports and the Cold War, what typically comes to mind are steroid-fueled East German swimmers, or the Soviets’ controversial basketball win at the Munich games, or Mike Eruzione’s game-winning goal in 1980 (or Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972, if you’re so inclined). What we don’t think of is football, meaning American football, because it’s so, well, American.

But that is the point of Kurt Kemper‘s book College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era (University of Illinois Press, 2009). The early Cold War was a time not only of international tension but also of domestic anxiety, with debates raging as to what were American–and un-American–activities and characteristics. Football came to be seen during this time as the quintessential national sport, one that manifested the American virtues of toughness, teamwork, and discipline. But this use of football as a defining feature of American character was controversial, and professors, administrators, alumni, and students, on university campuses across the country, debated the benefits of the sport.

Kemper’s book views these debates through an interesting case study: the selection of two teams for the 1962 Rose Bowl game. Looking at four contenders for the bowl invitation, Kemper offers a convincing, and unexpected, view of how college football was a catalyst for many contentious issues of the late-1950s and early-1960s, with debates raging about the game’s connection to higher education, commercialism, and racial integration. If you’re a college football fan, you won’t find detailed accounts of great teams and epic games in this book–but you will be surprised at the inner workings of the game fifty years ago. And if you’re looking for a revealing picture of sports and American cultural history, this book has much to offer.

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