Sports, World War II

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The relationship between sports and the American armed forces reached a climax during World War II. The military broadened its athletic regimen, established during World War I, and thereby reproduced a patriotic sporting culture that soldiers had known as civilians. The armed services provided equipment, training, and personnel rather than rely on private agencies, as had been done in World War I. The entry of numerous prominent athletes into military service represented a public relations boon for the Department of War and cemented a bond between professional sports, athletes, and patriotism. On the homefront, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that all sports, professional and amateur, should continue during wartime given their inherent "morale benefits." Military athletic prowess was widely celebrated as an affirmation of national identity and patriotic fortitude.

Sports reputedly reflect nationally specific sporting temperaments and styles of play. Many Americans distinguished between "their" sports and those national sports of the Allies as well as the opposing Axis powers. Within this nationalistic, militaristically charged context, American football was glorified as everything masculine and befitting the U.S. military experience. As organized sports became even more closely linked with fitness, morale, and patriotism, both within the ranks and on the homefront, football became a fixture on military bases at home and abroad. Football was the favored sport among the military brass, as Generals George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Omar Bradley all thought that football produced the best soldiers. Army and Navy were the two leading collegiate football powers during the war (Army was unbeaten from 1944 to 1946) and their games were broadcast over Armed Forces Radio. High school and collegiate coaches encouraged their players to join the service. Within five months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 32 percent of the NFL's professional players had enlisted and many more joined the war effort thereafter, which caused the League to shrink from ten to eight teams. By 1950 the Navy counted eighty former players as admirals, the Army, ninety-eight generals. One such former general, Robert Neyland, coached the University of Tennessee while on active duty with the Army for twenty years. He brought military organization and discipline to his highly ranked teams and compared football to war.

World War II broke the traditional recruiting pattern in college sports. After the war most coaches went far beyond their own territories to hunt for service-team vets and other prime military athletic prospects. After the war, 2.2 million vets went to college on the GI Bill, and thousands with football experience went to colleges with teams, making up 50 percent of collegiate players. More than three times as many colleges and universities fielded teams in 1946 than in 1945.

women in sports

World War II mobilized women to make further inroads into the male-dominated domain of sports. Working-class women played basketball and softball in public and industrial leagues, as well as leagues formed by the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Middle-and upper-class women embraced tennis, golf, and skiing at private clubs and resorts. Black female athletes competed in intercollegiate track and field during the late 1930s and early 1940s and dominated post-World War II Olympic competitions. Enlisted women participated in military service sports and competed against civilian teams to demonstrate that military personnel were just like the woman next door.

Women's sports were constricted by sexist notions that female athleticism ought to foster femininity and sexual attractiveness. As such, sports often provided a venue for sexual entertainment, with female athletes participating in beauty contests to demonstrate their sex appeal as well as athletic ability. Nowhere were these assumptions more in evidence than in the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL). Founded in 1942 by Chicago magnate Philip K. Wrigley, the AAGBL (which at its peak operated in ten cities and drew nearly a million annual spectators) championed women's baseball as a spectacle of feminine "nice girls" who could "play like men."


As the national pastime, baseball was a prominent component of the wartime experience both at home and in the European theater of war. One month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote President Roosevelt to inquire if games should be played during American involvement in the war. Roosevelt responded in a "green light letter" that "it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. Everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And they ought to have a chance for … taking their minds off their work even more than before." Ninety-five percent of players on Major League rosters in 1941 served in some capacity in the war effort. Many of the game's star players, such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, and Yogi Berra, forfeited seasons in the prime of their careers.

Baseball's war-depleted Major League rosters prompted several owners to recruit players of color—beginning first with Latin American players and, after the war, veterans of the Negro Leagues. The military was in the vanguard in utilizing black athletes—recognizing that in the war against Fascism and racism, the appearance of American racial harmony on the playing field (or arena) contributed to racial harmony. On the other hand, the military adhered to segregated training camps, relegating black soldiers to labor or service units and denying blacks access to naval positions. The War Department and the Office of War Information (OWI), however, exploited the celebrity status of prominent black athletes so as to defuse the escalating "Negro problem" inherent in the military's segregationist policies.

No individual athlete played a greater role in war morale and American propaganda than the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. Louis became a potent symbol who simultaneously represented heroism, patriotism, and black military involvement; but his persona was severed from racial issues. Louis was neither a black nationalist who spoke on behalf of racial equality nor a pawn of the white establishment. Rather, as one who understood race relations as a gradual process for white acceptance, he boosted troop morale as a patriotic American who symbolized black potential but who did not threaten the racialized views of armed black men that prevailed on the homefront.


Oriard, Michael. King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Sklaroff, Lauren Rebecca. "Constructing G.I. Joe Louis: Cultural Solutions to the 'Negro Problem' during World War II." Journal of American History 89 (December 2002).

Wakefield, Wanda Ellen. Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898–1945. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

S. W. Pope

See also:Sports, World War I; USO.