By Adam King
The idea of recreational sports on a college campus used to be frowned upon as a needless distraction from learning and studying. In 1787, Princeton University penalized “any students caught playing ball in certain areas of campus.”
But by the 1820s, national perception began to change. Harvard University built its first gymnasium in 1826 and intercollegiate athletics made their debut with a boat race between Harvard and Yale in 1852.
Ohio State and other current Big Ten schools were instrumental in promoting the idea that recreational activity should be incorporated into the student experience. Both Ohio State and Michigan were the first institutions to create departments of intramural athletics in 1913, making sports a recreational endeavor rather than purely an intercollegiate one.
Ohio State, which is celebrating the centennial of its rec sports foresight this academic year, had laid the groundwork much earlier, however.
A Buckeye tradition that began in 1880 or 1881 pitted the male freshmen and sophomore classes in a competition called the cane rush, where the classes battled for a walking cane to tote across an opponent’s goal line. In an atmosphere where discipline and morality were the rule, the rugby-style scrum trumped such decorum and was one of the first instances at Ohio State of extracurricular competition.
“By the mid-1880s, attention was given to physical development as part of the total education of students,” said Mary Daniels, a former Ohio State assistant vice president for Student Life who served as the first female president of NIRSA, the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, in 1987. “Students also pushed for social encounters with recreational sports as a vehicle. And more emphasis was placed on physical training classes for both men and women.”
In 1898, Ohio State built its Gymnasium-Armory, a place where female students had “the opportunity to pursue the newly created sport of basketball and their first true competitive sport experience,” said Daniels, who wrote her dissertation on the history of women and sport at Ohio State.
The university established the Department of Competitive and Recreative Athletics in December 1913, offering soccer, football, track and cross-country to male students, and participation grew rapidly.
Women’s inclusion was supported from a physical education perspective, but there was much controversy over whether they should be given access to high-level competition.
In 1917, the University of Wisconsin at Madison created the National Athletics Conference of American College Women, which was against developing varsity women’s athletics but supported intramural sports for both genders.
“Participation in recreational sports became accepted as meaningful, worthwhile pursuits for women,” Daniels said. “The focus turned to ‘a game for all and all in the game,’ reflecting a clear de-emphasis on competition and emphasis on participation.”
College campuses saw a lull in rec sports between the Great Depression and World War II, as young men went off to fight. But as the war wound down, industrialization in manufacturing afforded Americans more free time and recreational sports became a larger part of their leisure activities.
Women’s participation had always been low at Ohio State, so the university began the Buck-i-Anna Games, a weeklong, 16-sport informal competition in the 1960s that included swimming, canoeing, tennis, fencing, gymnastics and table tennis. The winning team received a 4-foot doll to parade around campus the remainder of the year to proclaim its prowess.
In 1968, Ohio State’s rec sports landscape shifted measurably. Men’s and women’s physical education programs were divested from the athletics department and formed a school within the College of Education, making them part of the academic program.
“By 1970, physical education faculty were concerned the state legislature was not funding extracurricular activities, including women’s intramurals and intercollegiate sports, and therefore these programs should be moved under Student Affairs,” Daniels said.
In January 1971, that faculty vote happened, and by autumn the men’s and women’s sports programs formed their own divisions within Student Services. The passage of Title IX in 1972, which required gender equity in all federally funded educational programs, started the move toward rec sports’ current look, and female participation began increasing.
Ohio State women’s intercollegiate sports were merged with the athletics department for good in July 1975, and that opened the door for the men’s and women’s intramural and rec programs to form their own department.
“This separation led to a clearer focus of the recreational needs of students and more directed use of Student Services dollars on related programs and activities,” Daniels said. “Shared use of what once were segregated men’s and women’s facilities meant more access and usage for women’s programs. This resulted in expanded program offerings and available hours for recreational pursuits.”
In the 1980s, Ohio State became one of the first colleges in the nation to start a group fitness class, called Buck-i-Robics. The aerobics classes appealed to women, and their participation in recreational sport exploded.
Today, rec sports serves all Ohio State students and about 4,000 non-student members with five indoor facilities, 90 acres of outdoor space, more than 40 intramural sports, 60 sport clubs, 100 group fitness classes per week, massage therapy, personal training, aquatics, outdoor adventure, climbing, tennis and community programming.
Rec sports director Donald Stenta, one of just six men to lead the department since its inception, said the next 100 years will remain student-centric.
“Rec sports departments will continue to focus more on student learning and defining how we contribute to the student learning focus,” Stenta said. “We are a proud department within the Office of Student Life and look forward to continuing our partnerships across campus. I believe that we will continue to see innovations in our programs and our facilities. We will continue to see a strong focus in ensuring our facilities are sustainable and energy efficient. We also will remain focused on creating an extraordinary student experience.”
This moment in time
Exactly 100 years to the day that the Department of Recreational Sports began operations, its current stewards will fill a time capsule on Jan. 9 to mark the occasion.
To create a memory for future generations, students were asked to write notes for the capsule, which also will include handbooks and newsletters; memorabilia from the centennial event; Ohio State, Student Life and rec sports gear and copies of The Lantern, The Columbus Dispatch and USA Today dated Jan. 9.
“We are going to place the time capsule in a visible location, above the area where members present their ID for access to the RPAC,” Stenta said. “Then it will be sealed and installed behind a glass panel. It is exciting to think about what Rec Sports will look like on the Ohio State campus for our bicentennial in 2113,” Stenta said. “I wish the students who organized our program on campus in 1913 could be here today to see what their vision has created. It is because of them that students today can live a life in motion at Ohio State.”