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Tracing the history of Lehigh sports

Courtney Smith is convinced her passion for sports is genetic. Growing up in Broomall, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, in a family that literally worshipped their sports heroes and treated baseball games as ritual events, she came to appreciate their devotion.

“My Polish-American great-grandmother had a special game rosary,” says Smith, now a doctoral candidate in Lehigh’s history department. “My maternal grandmother was, and still is unfortunately, a very devout fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as was her mother, my great-grandmother. They were also very devout Polish-American Catholics, so during each game of the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and the Yankees, they said the rosary.

“In Game 7 of that World Series, the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski, a Polish-American Catholic, hits the game-winning and series-winning home run,” she recalls before adding, “I firmly believe in the power of prayer.”

Athletics has blossomed into an academic interest of Smith’s as well, and will form the basis of her doctoral thesis tracing the history of Lehigh sports.

Titled “A Delicate Balance: A History of Lehigh Athletics from 1866-2001,” the thesis will address the university’s long-standing adherence to high academic standards while turning out winning athletic programs.

“Throughout its 135-year history, Lehigh has always managed to do that,” says Smith, who earned her undergraduate degree at Cabrini College and her M.A. at Lehigh in 2002.
“Even when other schools were chastised for the academic abuses under their athletic programs, Lehigh was singled out for praise.”

The effects of the 1929 Carnegie Foundation report

A pivotal point in the university’s history came in 1929, when a blistering report compiled by the Carnegie Foundation excoriated schools around the country for their lax academic standards for college athletes. Although Lehigh was noted in that report for its strong adherence to high academic standards for its athletes, the report spawned a series of initiatives at Lehigh that ensured that practice.

They included the Alumni Student Grant Program, which was temporarily sidelined during World War II, as well as a program that allowed alumni to subsidize tuition costs and thereby avoid the necessity of athletic scholarships.

“Everyone involved in the Lehigh athletic program, from the school presidents to the athletic directors and even the alumni, were determined to run a program free of ‘abuse and excess,’ What they meant was that they were not going to subsidize athletes through secret slush funds or under-the-table payments,” Smith says.

“Of course,” she adds, “this policy had a downside. Except for the wrestling team, Lehigh’s intercollegiate teams struggled on the playing field. So, the school developed this need-based program, the Alumni Student Grants Program, which allowed it to subsidize athletes without offering outright, full-ride athletic scholarships.”

What surprised—and disappointed her—was the notion of the NCAA as “a corrupt, monolithic monster” that pervaded much of the contemporary secondary literature she perused.

“I enjoyed reading the 1929 Carnegie Report because its writers made very conscious efforts to present a balanced yet critical overview of American intercollegiate athletic programs,” Smith says, noting the contrast between that report and the work of most contemporary scholars who made little discernable effort to present balanced overviews.

“Most of those have venemously attacked not only the NCAA but college student-athletes as well and have perpetuated the sort of ‘dumb jock’ stereotype,” she says. “And, since most of these scholars are academicians, their work has helped to create this unnecessary divide between academic departments and college athletic programs. That divide, in turn, has made life more difficult for student-athletes.”

Her research took her to the Lehigh archives, where she mined old copies of student newspapers and yearbooks for information, and flipped through old copies of the sports-oriented South Mountaineer, as well as the Alumni Bulletin, the Brown and White student newspaper, and its predecessor, the Lehigh Burr.

“I must have spent a month in front of a microfilm machine,” she says. “But it was well worth it to get a complete picture. Some of the stories in the publications, such as the South Mountaineer, were very telling.”

Attracting winners on the field and in the classroom

What she found was an athletics program rich in history and tradition, and one that attracted and nurtured generation after generation of students who were both gifted academically and athletically. Remarkably, she added, that enviable portrait was never tarnished by scandal.

“Every now and then, you’d read about an athlete who would have to leave a team because he couldn’t keep up academically, but nothing that really reflected negatively on the program. There were no cheating scandals, no sexual assaults, and no major problems over the years.”

Yet to complete are a series of oral histories that she hopes to conduct with administrators and faculty members at Lehigh who have been involved with the athletics program.

Smith says she was inspired to take on the project after taking a course taught by Kim Carrell-Smith, professor of practice in history, on compiling public history. She is now applying the research methods taught in that course to paint a full portrait of Lehigh athletics.

Advising her on the project are Roger Simon, professor of history; Craig Coenen, Ph.D. ’01, adjunct professor of history and assistant professor of history at Mercer County (N.J.) Community College, James Saeger, professor of history; and John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and director of Lehigh’s graduate-level American Studies program.

Smith hopes that her work will ultimately be published in a book and join the ranks of the admired authors who produced two favorite sports books: John Feinstein, author of The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball, and Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

“Feinstein’s book about athletics in the Patriot League is a real inspiration because he’s great at telling a story,” she says. “And with Seabiscuit, the author was very adept at placing the story in the broader sociological context. She really brought that to life.”

In the meantime, she’ll continue teaching two courses: “The History of African-Americans in Sports,” and “Sports in Modern America,” which she says delves into the abuses some schools commit to ensure winning teams.

“We take a look at what some schools are willing to do, from just providing tutors to really offering their athletes extraordinary treatment,” she says. “From everything that I’ve learned about athletics here, there are things that have never happened here at Lehigh.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, May 04, 2006

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