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A 12-year synod scrimmage over football

Church elders worried about conflicts between athletics and moral development


The October 1905 Augustana Observer brought what was to some disturbing news: "The athletic department of the Augustana Observer promises to be an unimportant feature this year on account of the action taken at the recent synodical meeting at Stanton, IA. The decision taken by this honorable body is deplored by many of the students at the institution..."

The decision in question was that of the Augustana Synod, the church body governing Augustana College, to ban all intercollegiate contests in football, basketball, and baseball. The synod members felt that intercollegiate competition was harmful to the physical and moral development of young people and had a detrimental effect on their congregations. Instead of intercollegiate athletics, the synod urged its colleges to offer systematic education in gymnastics and encourage participation in outdoor activities.

Although the ban led to a lack of intercollegiate competition, athletics at Augustana did not die. Instead, intramural sports became popular. Most classes at Augustana supported a basketball team; the Observer regularly reported on the outcomes of matches between, for instance, the juniors and seniors. There were also several popular tennis clubs. In February 1907 the Observer reported on the founding of a new athletic organization, the Olympic Club, which was "to further the interests of athletics among its members and to receive a systematic training in general gymnastics." Augustana teams also played community and high school teams, especially during baseball season.

Some members of the Augustana community felt that the athletic ban was deleterious to Augustana. Colleges from other branches or conferences of the Synod which defied the ban on intercollegiate athletics were increasing their enrollment, often at Augustana's expense. In June of 1908, the Augustana Synod rejected a petition for the reinstatement of intercollegiate athletics signed by 500 students from Augustana and Gustavus Adolphus colleges.

However, in June of 1910, the synod reinstated all intercollegiate sports with the exception of football. It would be on football that student activism, including yearly petitions to the synod asking for football's reinstatement, would focus in the coming years.

The increasing agitation of the student body on behalf of football can be seen in the Observer, exemplified by such elements as a "Football Ode," which ends with the following unambiguous and emphatic lines: "What we want is simply football, / Football now, and ever football. / Football, football, football, football!!!" The ode appeared in the December 1913 Observer, which also contains an account of a student protest in favor of restoring intercollegiate football at the end of a freshman-sophomore game.

"Consistent' Christians in football garb

The issue of football came to a head at the June 1917 Augustana Synod meeting. One of those who spoke in favor of allowing football was the Rev. Emil F. Bergren, who had been the captain of the last Augustana football team, in 1904. When the vote was finally called, it was 216 in favor of allowing college boards of directors to decide what sports were allowed, and 140 against, a decision which led to applause from Augustana students in the audience.

The Rev. E.E. Ryden, Class of 1910, closed his account of the synod debate with the following advice to Augustana students: "Insist on the highest moral as well as physical standards, prove to the world that an Augustana student, even in football garb, can be a consistent Christian, and then — hit the line hard!"

On Saturday, Oct. 27, 1917, Augustana played its first intercollegiate football game in over a dozen years, defeating Iowa Wesleyan 35-6 and inaugurating a new era in athletics at Augustana.