Sixty years ago football provided the nation an escape from a world war, but today, football, and other popular American sports, are often the source of conflict.
"Sports, especially American football, has become a world in itself," says Randy Roberts, distinguished professor of history at Purdue University and author of the new book "A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation." "At one time sports were mainly talked about in the sports section of a newspaper. Today it's frequently on the front page as well as business and crime sections, and it defines the universities and the cities the teams represent. To understand the status of these games today, it's important to look at history such as college football during World War II."
In "A Team for America," which was published Tuesday (Nov. 29) by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Roberts looks at the 1944 undefeated Army football team and its rival Navy, and the relationship between a violent game and a deadly war that had many personal ties between the players and the troops. He spent nearly a decade interviewing surviving players and coaches.
"Football was truly the last chance for these boys to be boys before they were called on to be men," Roberts says. "The war was never far from their thoughts. They studied how to lead troops during classes and attended camps to train for war. Football was truly a different game before World War II, and it's continued to change since then."
Roberts says this change is fueled in part by money - paid to coaches and programs and from corporate sponsorships - and television. Football, basketball and baseball have evolved from American pastimes to big business.
"There is a great difference between a world war that had 12 million people in uniform and today's smaller armed forces, but the idea that a current sports program would be interrupted because of current events, like college football was during World War II, is nearly inconceivable," he says. "Instead, only scandals or lockouts in sports can stop business as usual for people."
Roberts has written more than 30 books on topics including Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Oscar Robertson, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Boston sports.