Interscholastic Athletics

Interscholastic athletics emerged in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and like their collegiate level counterpart, they were organized and directed initially by students. The students at Worcester, Massachusetts High School inaugurated high school athletics when they formed a BASEBALL team in 1859. Students, eager for victory, recruited nonstudents for their teams, a practice that caused school administrators to take control of athletics. Although some New England boarding schools, public schools in Philadelphia and Buffalo, and private ACADEMIES in Chicago fielded teams during the 1860s, interscholastic athletics were not firmly established until the closing decades of the nineteenth century when social goals fostered by the Progressive movement gave athletics a useful purpose in America's high schools.

Social and Educational Benefits of Athletics

As Progressives labored to reduce turmoil in America's cities, they looked for a means of controlling youth whose affiliation with urban gangs resulted in deviant behavior. They believed athletics would keep youth occupied and hasten their transition into productive adults. An advocate of Progressive reform, LUTHER GULICK, Director of Physical Education in New York City, organized the Public Schools Athletic League in 1903. The PSAL sponsored interschool competition and self-testing fitness activities during the school day. So successful was Gulick's program that the PSAL prototype was duplicated in dozens of American cities, including Washington, DC, where Edwin B. Henderson adopted it for the District's segregated black schools. In 1905 Gulick and his assistant, Elizabeth Burchenal, organized the Girls' Branch of PSAL that emphasized noncompetitive activities. But in other cities at this time, namely Chicago and Los Angeles, girls athletics, particularly BASKETBALL, were highly competitive, though short-lived due to increasing social pressures to mold girls into refined young ladies in Chicago and to entice boys to stay in school in Los Angeles. High school athletics thus became the domain of boys. In extolling the educational benefits of athletics, educators not only defended the necessity of high school athletics, but they now had reason to expand physical education programs where they could assign athletic coaches for full-time administrative control.

National Tournaments, Intersectional Rivalries, and the Blossoming of Interscholastic Athletics

In the aftermath of World War I, interscholastic athletics experienced enormous growth. The number of athletic teams multiplied as high school enrollments increased. City and county leagues crowned champions in baseball, football, and basketball, states organized tournaments for major sports, and the National Federation of High Schools open its doors in 1920 to preserve the educational integrity of athletics.

Although intersectional competition in baseball and football dates to the early 1900s, New York and Chicago held seven intercity baseball championships during the 1920s. Intersectional rivalries in football were more widespread as teams from New England and Mid-Atlantic states played schools from the Midwest. Schools in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and other states initiated rivalries with opponents in nearby states. From 1921 to 1924, Illinois high schools participated in nine intersectional contests each year that involved teams from Toledo, Cleveland, Louisville, Detroit, and Baltimore.

The University of Chicago sparked a trend of national tourneys when it hosted the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (NIBT) from 1917 to 1930. Catholic schools, excluded from NIBT, established their own tour-ney, NCIBT, at Loyola University in 1924. By 1928, thirty-two teams from around the country participated in this fiveday event. Catholic schools declined NIBT's overtures in 1929, and a year later NIBT lost credibility when it denied an invitation to Phillips High School's all-black team, Chicago's Public League Champions that annually received an automatic bid. Black high schools held their own national basketball tournament at Tuskegee Institute, Tennessee A & I, and Hampton Institute in Virginia.

The Struggle of African-American and Female Athletes

African-American and female athletes endured an uphill battle to gain entry into interscholastic athletics. Excluded from the beginning, African Americans had to contend with such sanctioned segregation policies as they experienced in Indiana, for example, where the state association barred "colored" schools from participating in the state tournament from its inception in 1908 until 1942. Female athletes played competitive interschool basketball early on, but soon feminine propriety and the prospect of future motherhood caught up with them. Physicians and educators feared sports damaged child-bearing organs, and female physical educators denounced competition as unladylike. During the 1920s, girls' high school basketball in North Carolina, for instance, was highly popular among white and African-American schools. But in North Carolina and elsewhere, female physical educators gained control of girls' athletics and replaced competition with a participation model that emphasized socialization and friendship. White schools followed suit, but most African-American schools continued with the competitive model. The feminist movement of the 1960s and the enactment of Title IX in 1972 reopened the doors of interscholastic competition for girls.

Commercialization, Specialization, and Exploitation

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, commercialism drove the course of high school athletics. National tournaments and intersectional contests returned on a grand scale. Post season all-star games and roundball classics abounded. Hundreds of high schools created Internet web sites that featured their athletic programs. In the 1980s USA Today began ranking the Top 25 boys and girls high school teams each season in sports such as basketball, football, baseball, and softball. Scouting services generate substantial revenue by identifying and tracking the most promising athletes for college recruiters. Some high schools, with financial support from footwear giants Nike and Adidas, recruited stellar athletes from other school districts. Increasing commercialism caused athletes to specialize in one particular sport in order to perfect their skills with the hope of someday landing a lucrative professional contract. Untold numbers resorted to steroids and other performance-enhancing substances to improve their lot of securing a college scholarship.

In many cities and towns across America, high school sports are at the center of the community. They provide entertainment, contribute to community building, and foster civic pride. But sometimes this creates an atmosphere where success in athletics becomes all-important, thereby forcing coaches to exploit young athletes. Nowhere was that more evident than in Texas high school football where H. G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights revealed the clout of Odessa's Permian High School football program to supersede the school's educational mission. The overmatched underdog seeking stardom from a tiny hamlet, as portrayed in the film Hoosiers, had all but disappeared from interscholastic athletics by the dawn of the twenty-first century.

See also: High School; ; Title IX and Girls Sports.


Bissinger, H. G. 1990. Friday Night Lights, A Town, A Team and a Dream. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Brown, Victoria Bissell. 1990. "The Fear of Feminization: Los Angeles High Schools in the Progressive Era." Feminist Studies 16:493–518.

Cahn, Susan K. 1994. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press.

Grundy, Pamela. 2000. "From Amazons to Glamazons: The Rise and Fall of North Carolina Women's Basketball, 1920–1960." Journal of American History 87: 112–146.

Jable, J. Thomas. 1986. "High School Athletics, History Justifies Extracurricular Status." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 57, no. 2: 61–68.

Miracle, Andrew W., Jr., and C. Roger Rees. 1994. "Sport and School Unity." In Lessons of the Locker Room. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Pierce, Richard B. 2000. "More than a Game, the Political Meaning of High School Basketball in Indianapolis." Journal of Urban History, 27: 3–23.


Johnson, Scott. 2003. "Not Altogether Ladylike, the Premature Demise of Girls' Interscholastic Basketball in Illinois." Available from

Pruter, Robert. 2003. "A Century of Intersectional Football Contests, 1900–1999." Available from