In the late 19th century, the Industrial Age brought tremendous technological changes, and the closing of the western frontier threatened visions of further manifest destiny in the continental United States. Americans looked for definitions of manhood, and sport rose to the forefront as a potential answer. Colleges in the Ivy League wanted to prepare elite men for leadership positions in society, and football provided a wonderful avenue to challenge their white students.
Underneath the game, a white supremist ideology drove the narrative and glory of the heroic white competitor. Minorities were not physically strong enough or had the mental fortitude to play on the gridiron…only whites, according to Social Darwinists and elite progressives.
Some Americans promoted the assimilation of Native Americans as an opportunity to civilize the original populace of North America. Christian schools sprouted to prepare Indigenous children for a new life in American society. In Pennsylvania, Carlisle Indian Industrial School stood at the forefront of the new institutions dedicated to assimilating these children. Students came from conquered tribes, parents were pressured into surrendering their children, and occasionally, families volunteered kids to these boarding schools.
How did these new schools demonstrate that their students could assimilate? At Carlisle, football became an avenue to debunk white supremacy and prove that Native Americans could also thrive. By 1910, Carlisle has one of the best teams in the nation and competed against Yale, Harvard, Penn and Army. Who was the best athlete in the nation? None other than Carlisle star Jim Thorpe, who in the summer of 1912, would win the Gold Medal in the Decathlon.
By the fall of 1912, the Bulldogs were one of the best teams in the nation and owned an explosive offense, outscoring opponents 454-120. In early November, the team travelled to West Point to take on Army. For the players, it was not just another game. It represented their desire to earn respect and prove themselves.
For years, the white press accused Carlisle of cheating off the field and playing a less than masculine style of football on the gridiron. The Bulldogs emphasized speed, strategy and tactics as opposed to the brute force employed by the majority of white teams. “They had invented a whole new brand of game. Carlisle football, mixing the run, pass, and kick with elements of surprise was the game of the future.”ix It was a contrast of styles that angered many white Americans. Now, 9-0-1, the Bulldogs sought a victory worthy of their status in college football.x
On the other sideline, the cadets dressed several future WWII generals: Geoffrey Keyes, Leland Hobbs, Vernon Prichard, Omar N. Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The outcome of the game had major implications for both clubs seeking a national championship in college football. For the Bulldogs, it also meant earning respect across the nation from the white press. “Though they were clearly the best offense in the nation, commentators continued to mark them with an asterisk, as if they were something less than a real college team, and suggested they had run up their extravagant scores against weaker competition.”xi
Despite all of the advantages of race, wealth and privilege, Army had no answer for the talented Bulldogs. “The shifting, puzzling, and dazzling attack of the Carlisle Indians had the Cadets bordering in a panic, The New York Tribune observed.”xii When the final gun sounded, Carlisle had punished Army 27-6 and stunned the sports public.
“Since Whiteness has long enjoyed privilege in this society, work using CRT will likely bring new critiques on procedures that have heretofore been considered necessary or even best practices. Yet the benefits of such work would bring us closer to a just society. What types of inequalities would we see and what new possibilities for change might become visible when these issues are viewed through a lens that centers race?”xiii
In a nation obsessed with sports, why has the public ignored the great Carlisle teams of the past? Why have the Bulldogs been relegated to the dustpan of history? I hope to bring the amazing accomplishments of the Carlisle team back into the consciousness of Americans. Unequivocally, Carlisle disproved the mendacity of racial stereotypes and myths of Native Americans, and through the lens of CRT, should be added to curriculum units across the country.