If worded just right, a classified ad in Brown University's student newspaper, the Daily Herald, can release as much energy as a hydrogen bomb. The man who discovered the magic formula is Wade C. Thompson, an English instructor at Brown. Here is his ad:
Thompson has red hair, a flair for controversy and a fine bass voice. He is six feet four inches tall and has played basketball but not football. He once sang bass in the chorus of the Radio City Music Hall in order to support himself and his family while he worked for his doctorate at Columbia University. While at the Music Hall he organized the Rockettes into a labor union, and did the job so skillfully that he became a full-time labor organizer for a year.
Thompson will soon receive his Ph.D. from Columbia (his doctoral dissertation is on the aesthetic theories of Henry David Thoreau) and will soon move up to an assistant professorship at Brown—not, however, because of his antifootball ad. He is, temporarily and in a mild way, a national celebrity. For the Daily Herald, while running the ad in its classified section, ran a story about the ad on Page One (INSTRUCTOR ADVOCATES ABOLITION OF FOOTBALL) and PL 1-6767 became the busiest telephone in Providence, R.I.
Thompson received bully-boy threats by telephone, a courteous visit from Brown's football captain (who offered physical protection against possible violence) and offers to sign his petition, which was imaginary anyway. The teacup storm became a gale which roared about the campus; Brown students turned fervently pro-or acidly anti-Thompson. Newspapers all over the country took up the story, and everybody enjoyed the wonderful nonsense except Wade Thompson, who got tired of answering the telephone and being interviewed.
March 23, 1959
The debate went on, informally but vigorously, for a week and then was made official by a panel discussion, followed by a question period, in Brown's stately Sayles Hall. Flanked by paintings of Brown worthies of the past 195 years, Thompson took one side, Athletic Director Paul F. Mackesey took the other and a few hundred students came to clap, boo and listen.
"I have received hundreds of invitations to drop dead," Thompson began, admitting that he and his imaginary antifootball committee had found themselves "outnumbered approximately 40,000 to one. We hung out one surrender flag after another. Still the shooting continued. We resolved to retreat from one untenable position to another, but the hullabaloo went on."
Thompson had called football anti-intellectual, he said, but what he was really opposed to was "the sanctification of football." The clamorous reaction to his advertisement had proved, he said, that even at Brown, which follows the Ivy League code of amateurism in athletics, football is sanctified.
"It is preposterous to think that Brown is going to abolish football just because I said it should." But, he insisted, "football doesn't build character any more than tennis does, or chess. It is no substitute for motherhood.... It has been choked with clichés, mired in sentimental mush, drowned in tears and flapdoodle, until no football coach can go from one job to another without more idiotic fanfare than that which will accompany the Second Coming."
Athletic Director Mackesey, a lawyer who speaks as persuasively as Thompson, said he felt that the evening's discussion dignified the subject of antifootball beyond its deserts. "If athletics does not make a sensible and sound contribution to education as we understand it, then there is no justification for it in our college program.... Only those who have viewed education narrowly, with one eye, have considered that scholarship alone is enough to make the whole man.... College education is a four-year experience in preparation for the whole of life and not for one part of it.
"What better preparation for all of life than hard work and success both in the classroom and on the playing field? The scholar-athlete, the college football player, is not a divided, cross-eyed person but a man of twofold ability.... There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Thompson, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
What began as a joke and became a farce thus wound up almost soberly, with the students listening to both speakers as carefully as to a classroom lecture (more carefully, some faculty members thought). Possibly no convictions were changed as a result of Brown's great debate, but the arguments had rarely been stated so sharply or received so much attention. Thompson, who never explained his purpose in soliciting signatures for an imaginary petition on behalf of a nonexistent committee, was wearily willing to let the whole matter drop. "I have had a horrible week," he said, rubbing his tired-looking face. Later he added, "I hope the students carry on the debate from now on."