Sports and the Changing Tides of American Culture in the 1960s

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12 Sports and the Changing Tides of American Culture in the 1960s

The 1960s had its share of thrilling athletic events, fiercely contested rivalries, dominant teams, and inspiring sports heroes. The Green Bay Packers, the Boston Celtics, and the New York Yankees dominated professional football, basketball, and baseball, respectively. Yet the decade also saw upstart teams such as baseball's New York Mets and football's New York Jets produce dramatic championship seasons. Longstanding records were shattered in major league baseball, as Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs in 1961, and Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962. College football and basketball remained tremendously popular sports. In 1968 alone, three football teams—the University of Texas, Ohio State University, and Penn State University—all compiled undefeated records. In college basketball, coach John Wooden's University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins were kings of the court, winning ten national championships between 1964 and 1975. Athletes and teams in many other sports pushed the boundaries of their field, thrilling fans with their prowess.

Obviously, there are great stories to be told about sports in the 1960s. Yet it was not the athletic contests themselves that defined the changing nature of sports in the 1960s, but rather the way that developments in sports reflected the pressing societal issues of the era, from Cold War politics to civil rights to the widespread commercialization of culture. This chapter discusses the way American sports participated in the sweeping social changes that characterized the decade.

The power of money

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, amateur sports had been heralded as the ideal form of athletic competition. Amateur sports, it was believed, were pure. Athletes competed for the glory of the game, not for money. They dedicated themselves to the glory of their college or, in the case of the Olympic Games, their nation. Though professional sports had a following—especially professional baseball—paid athletes were generally not held in the same positive light as their amateur counterparts, for it was thought that they were corrupted by their desire for money. But the innocence of the amateur athletic ideal was undermined by commercial pressures during the 1960s.

For more than fifty years, college sports had been the most popular form of athletic entertainment, with allegiances to teams formed on a local or regional basis. Fans supported their local colleges and universities, even if they had not attended those schools themselves, and children grew up wanting to play for school teams near their homes. But television widened fans' local loyalty in college sports. Infusing millions of dollars into university athletic departments and reshaping the way athletics were presented, television networks turned college sports into a big business.

Super Bowl Champions of the 1960s

1966Green Bay Packers
1967Green Bay Packers
1968New York Jets
1969Kansas City Chiefs

Note: There was no Super Bowl before 1966, just a National Football League (NFL) champ and a American Football League (AFL) champ.

Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, television networks signed contracts to televise college sporting events. Wanting to show fans the best games, they tended to focus on the teams with winning records or large numbers of fans. These teams received additional revenues, and their coaches could develop recruiting networks that fanned out across the nation in search of the best players. Winning schools got more money from television networks, and the richer the school, the better it was able to compete for the best talent. Thus money drove the competition for players to an extreme, as the best programs in college sports competed not only to win games but also to recruit players. It was a vicious cycle that some say thoroughly corrupted college sports, making student athletes into semi-professional players, and making college leagues into a system that prepared players for eventual participation in professional sports, much like the farm system in major league baseball.

Though some regretted the impact of big money on college sports, no one could deny that television was an important way to capture the excitement of college sports such as football and basketball. Sports historians Randy Roberts and James S. Olson point to the introduction of the slow-motion instant replay as one of the factors that made televised sports so exciting. Television cameras could sort through the tangle of twenty-two players on a football field, for example, to zoom in on the key block that allowed the runner to break through. Television cameras could also roam the sidelines, bringing close-ups of player reactions and in-depth interviews. Television made the game seem more vital and exciting, and it made celebrities of the most notable coaches and players.

World Series Champs of the 1960s

1960Pittsburgh Pirates
1961New York Yankees
1962New York Yankees
1963Los Angeles Dodgers
1964St. Louis Cardinals
1965Los Angeles Dodgers
1966Baltimore Orioles
1967St. Louis Cardinals
1968Detroit Tigers
1969New York Mets

Sports celebrities

Even before the 1950s, media coverage of athletes had the effect of making heroes, but the nature of the sports hero changed in important ways in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early parts of the century, sports heroes tended to be presented in a positive, one-dimensional light. Radio stories, newspapers, and newsreels (short features shown in theaters before a full-length film or between two full-length films) stressed only the achievements of athletes and offered fans only a look at the most positive elements of an athlete's personality. Fans did not learn about the personal troubles or political opinions of their idols; in fact, nobody even dreamed that sports figures had political opinions. Such coverage allowed athletes with very troubled lives—such as baseball players Babe Ruth, who drank heavily, and Ty Cobb, who got into vicious fist fights—to be widely perceived as both champions and role models. But the growth of feature-length magazine articles about sports figures in magazines such as Sports Illustrated (launched in 1954) and the popularity of televised sports began to change the way Americans came to know their heroes. These new media gave fans an intimate look into the lives of famous athletes, oftentimes exposing their failings and problems. Media coverage of sports heroes in the 1960s did not go as far as it did in the early 2000s—when practically every misstep of athletes was reported—but it did remove from athletes the image of perfection they once enjoyed.

Increased television coverage of sports gave athletes a platform on which they could announce their views and opinions. Several of the most famous athletes of the era took advantage of the presence of microphones in pre-event or post-event media coverage. Boxer Cassius Clay (1942–), for example, used the media to intimidate his opponents. Before fighting Sonny Liston in 1964, Clay boasted in verse, as quoted in John Tessitore's Muhammad Ali: The World's Champion: "Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see." When Clay's victory made him the heavyweight champion, coverage of his poetic pronouncements only grew. The day after the fight, Clay announced that he was dropping his last name in favor of the letter X, thereby renouncing the name he had inherited from those who had once owned his slave ancestors. Soon after, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, in recognition of his acceptance of the Muslim religion. He proclaimed to reporters: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky—my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me." America not only got used to Ali—who reigned on and off as boxing champion through the 1970s—but they grew to love the smart, boastful boxer who promoted racial advancement alongside his own career.

Professional football provided two of the decade's brightest celebrities, and the two were a study in contrasts. Vince Lombardi (1913–1970), who coached the Green Bay Packers for most of the decade, led his football team to National Football Conference championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, and 1966; in 1967 they won the first-ever Super Bowl. Lombardi was a throwback to the old school of coaching: he hammered his players into learning the fundamental skills and he stressed hard work and execution over fancy plays. >He was revered by many who distrusted the permissive, anything-goes spirit of the 1960s that allowed men to wear long hair and do things like smoke marijuana. Sportswriters liked reprinting his many pronouncements about winning football and building men, but he disclaimed credit for the most famous quote attributed to him: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." By contrast to Lombardi, Joe Namath (1943–), a flashy quarterback who had played college football at the University of Alabama before taking charge of the upstart New York Jets of the American Football Conference, was a notorious womanizer and heavy drinker. Namath defined the brash, devil-may-care attitude that typified a new generation of sports stars. He achieved his greatest fame in 1969 when he predicted that his Jets would upset the Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl and then followed through by leading his team to a stunning victory.

There were many other sports heroes during the 1960s—including baseball stars Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, and Frank Robinson; basketball stars Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar); golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; tennis player Billie Jean King; and numerous others. Thanks to TV and magazines, fans came to know these people who gained the status of movie stars. In the years that followed, press coverage of sports went further into the athletes' private lives, so that by the 1990s few details of an athlete's life remained free of media attention. This publicity brought media-savvy stars great wealth, but it also subjected them to great pressures.

Politics, race, and sports

Some of the most pressing political issues of the 1960s affected the world of sports. Perhaps most pressing was the influence of the civil rights movement. African Americans had long asserted their equality with whites, and in many cases athletic contests provided an even playing field on which African Americans could prove their case. By the 1960s all of professional and most of college sports were integrated, which meant that black players played on the same teams along with whites. That integration was not yet complete, however. For example, until the late 1960s, racist attitudes kept African American athletes from playing the key positions in football—quarterback and middle linebacker. In 1967 when Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics became the first African American to coach a pro basketball team, few blacks occupied coaching positions and none owned a professional team.

In college basketball, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) remained rigidly segregated through the mid-1960s. SEC teams even refused to play opponents with black players until 1963. In 1966 the whites-only policy was given a decisive test. The undefeated and all-white University of Kentucky basketball team played in the national championship game against the mostly black Texas Western University. The smaller, younger TWU team defeated the powerful Kentucky team with a final score of 72 to 65. Within a few years Kentucky had recruited its first black player, which ended segregation on the Kentucky basketball team.

National Basketball Association Champions of the 1960s

1959-60Boston Celtics
1960-61Boston Celtics
1961-62Boston Celtics
1962-63Boston Celtics
1963-64Boston Celtics
1964-65Boston Celtics
1965-66Boston Celtics
1966-67Philadelphia 76ers
1967-68Boston Celtics
1968-69Boston Celtics
1969-70New York Knicks

By the mid-1960s it was no longer rational to deny black equality in athletics. A number of black athletes used the fame they acquired through sports to advance the cause of all African Americans. Boxer Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most vocal champion of black civil rights. In fact, he went ever further in protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75) by refusing to be drafted. According to Tessitore, Ali claimed that black people had "no quarrel with the Vietcong," the Vietnamese guerrilla soldiers who fought against the United States. Other black players supported civil rights causes in less vocal ways.

One of the most dramatic statements of support for black civil rights came in the 1968 Olympic Games, held in Mexico City, Mexico. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. When they stepped on the awards podium to accept their medals, the two black athletes bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists in the air in a dramatic salute to "black power," a radical wing of the civil rights movement. Their statement was seen on televisions around the world, and many Americans were embarrassed that their "race problem" had been broadcast to the world. International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage stripped the sprinters of their medals, but the point was made.

Politics of another sort crept into the Olympic Games held in 1960, 1964, and 1968: Cold War politics. Ever since the end of World War II (1939–45), the United States and the Soviet Union had been in a pitched battle to establish the dominance of their opposed political and economic systems, American democracy vs. Soviet communism. In each of the Olympic Games staged in the 1960s, the Americans and Soviets used the performance of their athletes as a scorecard for their political contest. Broadcasters in both countries kept close track of the medals won by their respective countries. In both 1960 and 1964, Soviet athletes dominated both the summer and winter competitions. Americans soon complained that the Soviets had cheated. They pointed to the fact that Soviet athletes were paid by the state to compete, which made Soviet athletes professionals, whereas American athletes were not paid and thus were truly amateurs. They also complained that Soviet athletes were turned into athletic machines with performance-enhancing drugs. Critics pointed to spectacular gains made by Soviet weightlifters and to the fact that Soviet women had begun to appear distinctly masculine. One drug test revealed that these female athletes had a genetic makeup that did not quite classify them as female; a Hungarian doctor called them "genetic mosaics." By the 1968 summer games, more careful drug testing and superior athletes allowed the Americans to overtake the Soviet Union for the first time, with 107 total U.S. medals to the Soviet Union's 91.

Each side used the publicity surrounding the Olympic competitions to point out the failures of the other's political system. The Soviet Union, for example, openly criticized the United States for the slow progress that it was making on granting civil rights to its people. The United States countered these embarrassing statements by making public the inferior living standards and restrictive social system of communist countries.

For More Information


Farber, David, and Beth Bailey, with others. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Fitzpatrick, Frank. And the Walls Game Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western, and the Game that Changed American Sports. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Jay, Kathryn. More than just a Game: Sports in American Life since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Ritter, Lawrence. The Story of Baseball. Rev. ed. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1999.

Roberts, Randy, and James S. Olson. Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Sanford, William R. Joe Namath. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.

Stewart, Mark. Basketball: A History of Hoops. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Stewart, Mark. Football: A History of the Gridiron Game. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Tessitore, John. Muhammad Ali: The World's Champion. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Web sites

Olympic Games. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

Wide World of Sports Highlights–1960s. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

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Sports and the Changing Tides of American Culture in the 1960s

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