12/10/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

What If We Abolished Football?

Most people don't realize it but there was a movement afoot early in the 20th century, led by eastern Progressives, to ban the game of football on the grounds that it had become too violent. And this was in the days before anyone could imagine specimens like Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher. It took the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt to get football to alter its rules sufficiently to quell the uprising.

When we take a look back at sports in general, we're struck by where we began and how far we've come. Indeed, there was a time when aristocrats and members of the royal family gathered to watch gladiators do battle in Roman arenas, and later, here in America, when Southern plantation owners wagered on the outcome of fistfights between their field slaves.

Back then, it was the rich and well-born watching the common man compete for their amusement. Today, we still watch athletes compete for our amusement, but the dynamic has changed. When we watch the NBA, NFL or major league baseball, it's a case of the non-rich multitudes (the "common man") watching millionaires compete against other millionaires. The audience is now poor, and the athletes are now wealthy. We've done a complete reversal.

It's been argued by high-minded folks that sports matter to us way more than they should, that we've allowed what was supposed to be a harmless and entertaining endeavor evolve into a phenomenon that dominates our lives. I believe it was Ralph Nader who posed the question: What kind of a country would it be if men paid as much attention to politics as they did to sports?

Instead of memorizing batting averages and starting line-ups, men would know the names of all the Senate and congressional committee chairpersons. They would gather in bars to discuss key votes and caucuses and amendments the same way that men gather to talk about the play-offs. They would have loud, drunken arguments about the 14th amendment. But given our fanatical love for sports and our indifference to politics, we can't really wrap our minds around such a thing, even as a hypothetical.

But this disproportionate emphasis on sports bothered Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, to such a degree, that, in 1939, he abolished football altogether. It's true. He took the University of Chicago, which was a member of the Big Ten, right out of the conference.

Hutchins felt that his students and faculty needed to be reminded of what the priorities were. The purpose of a university was to develop educated and analytical thinkers, not mindlessly fritter away time on sports events. Amazingly, Hutchins' abolition came four years after the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger won the very first Heisman Trophy. Chicago was a college football power. Talk about a gutsy move.

We can't imagine this happening today, not even with a middling college program, much less at a football factory like Alabama, USC, or Notre Dame. If the president of the University of Alabama were to announce that, because football "had become too important to the students and faculty," it was going to be abolished, he would be summarily fired (if not assassinated).

I've often wondered what I would do if there no baseball, basketball or football on TV -- how I would spend those hundreds of hours a year of "found" time. Maybe I'd read more; maybe I'd spend more time with the wife and kids; maybe I'd do more physical exercise. On the other hand, maybe I'd start drinking and getting into mischief. So, it's a trade-off.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep.