Date of Award


Document Type

Union College Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


American Studies

First Advisor

Denis Brennan




football, America, health, culture, masculinity


This thesis examines how college football in the late nineteenth century serves as a lens through which one can observe the formation of American culture. The study is broken into four general units, which help define the impact athletics has had on American identity: an examination of the definition of sport, a history of sporting heritage in America, the marriage of religion and athletics in the Muscular Christianity movement, and lastly an examination of college football and its contributions to the formation of an American identity. This study highlights the evolution of a sporting culture in America, from its beginnings in the colonial era through the early twentieth-century. The massive urbanization trend of the nineteenth century had a significant social impact, especially on health and religious reform. This stimulated a shift in traditional ideologies regarding physical health, resulting in the rejection of physical health ideas associated with Victorian culture and forming a new appreciation for the “rugged individual.” These changes called for a new venue in which young men could express the morals and virtues that manliness encompassed. Football became the new venue in which young men could express their manhood. As a result, colleges across the nation heeded the call, developing the robust student-athletes who embodied America’s new virtues. In this atmosphere, football became a teaching system through which young men learned the values of hard work, discipline, and emotional control—ultimately everything needed to cultivate manliness and character. Football players were perceived to have attained solid morals and personal values; these strengths exemplified the greater American identity. Americans identified with these new football heroes, and these intercollegiate athletes helped explain what it meant to be American in the nineteenth century.