Why Athletics?

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Joseph-Siffred Duplessis (22 September 1725 – 1 April 1802), Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1785)

What central ideals lay at the root of Penn's athletic program, and how did these ideals connect to those of the ancient world?  In the late 1800s there was a spike in interest in athletics among both students and faculty.  Due to the increase in the school’s involvement in athletics there was an upturn in enrollment.  Was this the reason?  Could such a basic financial impetus have been the sole motivation for changing the culture of the University?  Considerations of reputation and finance no doubt played a part, but they are not the whole story.  

The real motivation came from Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.  This book, originally published in 1749, included Benjamin Franklin’s ideas for education.  Franklin himself was a believer in the eighteenth century principle of ad exemplum regis ("according to the example of the king"), or the idea of patterning behavior on a model, and since Franklin himself was the role model for students at Penn, the university adopted his ideas about education.  He thought that athletics were important, because in order “to keep the students in health and to strengthen and render active their bodies, they [students] should be frequently exercised in Running, Leaping, Wrestling, and Swimming, etc.”  It was the University’s goal to get as many people involved with athletics as possible, not only to nurture the profitable athletic culture, but because of perceived health and educational benefits as well.  George Turnbull, whom Franklin quoted extensively in the footnotes of his Proposals, was convinced that without exercise, “Both Mind and body would thus become gradually too relaxed, too much unbraced for the Fatigues and Duties of Active life.”  This line of thought was adopted by the university as well, since a goal of the athletic program was to make the idle and weak student more mentally and physically active.  The University believed that health and strength not only made one superior to people who lacked those traits, but also allowed the student to work better and more comfortably.  Fitness and a properly developed frame were considered to be a major key to success.  Exercise was believed to create a superior student by calming and reinvigorating the brain—and thus we return to the Athletic Association’s motto, “mens sana in corpore sano.”


Portrait of Provost Pepper

C. M. Gilbert, photograph portrait of Provost William Pepper (1890), from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

Along with the financial and academic benefits, student health was also a benefit of instituting an athletic program.  When William DeLancey was provost from 1828 to 1834, he partnered with a local gym in order to counter claims that Penn worked the students so hard that it was in fact detrimental to their health.  Later, William Pepper (Provost from 1882 to 1894) instituted athletics in the hope that they would improve behavior.  As a physician, he was convinced that too much academic work without exercise could be bad for health, and he hoped that poor behavior could be cured by exercise as well.  The English philosopher John Locke, whom Franklin frequently quoted in the footnotes of Proposals, said “‘tis that saves many a Man’s Life; and the Romans thought it so necessary, that they rank’d it with Letters; and it was the common phrase to mark one ill educated, and good for nothing, that he had neither learnt to read nor swim.”  Not only was swimming viewed as a necessary skill for survival, but also as a necessary aspect of education, along with the liberal arts (Letters).  Locke believed that the combination of education and athletics can be traced back all the way to Rome.  In fact, in the late nineteenth century, Francis Newton Thorpe, the editor of a book on the University of Pennsylvania, believed that as a sculptor wants a perfect model, each student should want to perfect health through obtaining symmetrical development of the mind and body.  The benefits of developing strong minds and bodies in its students became a goal of the university, just as it was in the ancient world.


Doryphoros (after Polykleitos)

Doryphoros ("The Spear Bearer"). Roman copy of a 5th-century Greek bronze by Polykleitos said to represent the sculptor's theory of ideal proportion.

Thorpe’s reference to sculpture is an interesting choice, as it suggests a tie to the Greek athletic world.  Young male beauty and Greek athleticism went hand in hand, and victory statues marked this ideal.  Pentathletes were the epitome of Greek beauty, for they were fast and strong, yet had been symmetrically proportioned and not too developed.  Many artists and sculptors chose to depict nude athletes, especially pentathletes, to show their admiration of strength and symmetrical beauty.  However, symmetrical development was only half of the Greek ideal.  In The Republic, Plato illustrated the importance of having a “duly harmonized” mind and body.  He logically argued that exercise was the “twin sister” of the arts, and allowed for the “improvement of the soul,” just as Locke believed that athletics was just as important as academics.  Civic institutions in the ancient world lent themselves to the combination of athletics and academics, as gymnasiums were for both exercise and hearing lectures.  Plato’s academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens were both gymnasia, or places “for the body and soul” to be trained.  Athletics did not exist for purely philosophical purposes.  Just as Penn needed the concrete motivation of money, behavior, and student health to institute athletics, the Greeks used exercise to keep civilian soldiers ready for war.  Socrates famously rebuked a young man for not staying in shape in case military service was required.  Socrates did not feel as though all young men needed to train intensely, but he did believe that fitness was a civic responsibility.  

In order to better understand Penn’s reception of Greek athletics, we should also look at the Renaissance.  Both Penn and Renaissance culture borrowed heavily from the ancient world.  During the Renaissance, scholars and artists looked to Greece and Rome for the rebirth of European culture.  These scholars and artists were also particularly interested in the harmony of body and mind.  The idea of this harmonization fit in well with the current ideal Renaissance men, who were socially, mentally, and physically talented.  In providing an undergraduate education, Penn intended to mold a similar sort of person, one who would be well educated and athletically talented, but not completely specialized, much like the Renaissance man or ancient pentathlete.