The Effects of “Play for Plays Sake”

May Fete at UW, 1915.

May Fete at UW, 1915.

The most obvious result of the official endorsement of intramural over intercollegiate play was a severe developmental delay as regards competitive women’s sports. Another significant result was the WAA’s monopoly on campus athletics.

The WAA embodied the democratic ideal many physical educators were striving for. In its impetus, structure, and activities, the organization represented diffusion of power, the elimination of superstars, and the active recruitment of as many members of the community as possible.

The WAA’s goals, it seems, were nearly holistic, stretching into the arenas of social life, entertainment, and culture. That the WAA thrived in an environment where intercollegiate activity was banned is hardly a surprise, nor a coincidence. After all, the association was designed by, or in concert with, the very physical educators that had so effectively demonized intercollegiate competition. The WAA sided with the administration in its resistance to intercollegiate sports.

This united front presented both an understanding of how sports should be played and the appropriate outlet for doing so. The official critique of competition did not, however, seem to dampen Wisconsin women’s thirst for it.

Although they were barred from competing against other schools, students enthusiastically participated in more “acceptable” forms of competition—i.e., interclass, intramural, and inter-sorority matches and championships. Presumably these types of rivalries would remain more friendly and ladylike because they would attract less attention, fewer fans, and therefore avoid the financial pressures and moral pitfalls associated with “real” competition.

Field Hockey at UW, 1923.

Field Hockey at UW, 1923.

It is interesting to note exactly where the thin line between “healthy” and “evil” competition was drawn. The official stance was that competition was not inherently evil, but became evil when winning was emphasized over enjoyment—which was inevitable when school spirit entered the picture. Apparently, this rabid loyalty applied only to the university itself, and not to, say, a sorority.

It should be noted that intramural sports rapidly gained in popularity with university men as well as women. This is perhaps linked to Athletic Director George Little’s Athletics for All program, as well as the decision in 1927 to grant gym credit for participation in certain team sports, as long as they were properly supervised.

The success of the WAA can be seen within the measure of a three-year span. Basketball was the first official intramural sport, co-sponsored by the WAA and the physical education department in 1925; there were 215 participants.

The following year, 848 students took part in seven sports; interest was greater than facilities would allow, and the gym at Luther Memorial Church was rented for overflow. By the 1927-28 school year, 1,694 women and 52 organizations (roughly 50% of the female student body) were participating in WAA-sponsored activities.

Equestrian, 1930.

Equestrian, 1930.

Intramural tournaments were held in basketball, bowling, hockey, horse shoes, softball, swimming, tennis, track, and volleyball. At the Winter Carnival, teams competed in tobogganing, sledding, skiing, speed/figure skating, and ice hockey.

Swimming enjoyed a steep rise in popularity and the Dolphin Club was formed in 1920. Blanche Trilling attributed the increase in swimmers to the invention of the hair dryer. Perhaps the modernization of swimwear also had some effect.

Previous incarnations of swimsuits were similar to full dresses, complete with stockings that were removed after entering the water. The sight of all that excess material had prompted Trilling to quip, “swim if you can, but sink if you must.”