University of Michigan Memory Hole

These days, statues are coming down and buildings and monuments are being re-named as leftists scour the historical record for evidence of nonconformity with today’s conventional wisdom. Generally, I have little sympathy for this project, in part because I scoff at the idea that our forebears were less moral than we are. I do make exceptions, however: there is a statue of former Governor Floyd B. Olson on the grounds of the Minnesota state capitol, and a major highway in the state is named after him. Olson was both a Communist and a gangster, and I do not think he should be honored in any way, or if possible, remembered.

But that was a digression. This post is about Fielding Yost, a tremendous football coach who won six national championships at the University of Michigan. Michigan’s hockey arena is named after him, and as a University of Minnesota hockey fan I have been hearing about Yost Arena for many years. Perhaps, however, not for many years longer. The Associated Press reports:

A committee proposed that the University of Michigan remove Fielding Yost’s name from the campus ice arena after a review of his work, including his refusal to let a Black football player play a Southern school in 1934.

Yost spent about 40 years in Ann Arbor as football coach or athletic director and sometimes both. His teams won 83% of their games, the best mark in school history.

Yost is remembered for being an exceptionally successful coach and athletic director, not necessarily for being a moral paragon. But is the principal charge against him fair?

But Yost refused to let Willis Ward play against Georgia Tech, a response to a demand by that school.

So Yost didn’t refuse to let Ward play; rather, he acceded to Georgia Tech’s demand. In turn, Georgia Tech agreed to bench its star player as compensation for Ward sitting out the game for Michigan. This happened in 1934. By that time, Yost was Michigan’s Athletic Director, not its football coach. The fact that Michigan had a black player in 1934 is noteworthy because Big 10 football generally didn’t integrate until the 1960s. So for most Big 10 teams, the issue that Yost faced never would have come up.

If an opponent refuses to play a game if a particular team member participates, I think the appropriate course usually is to decline to play. Teams sometimes do this. The story sheds an interesting light on Gerald Ford, an All-America lineman at Michigan:

The decision greatly angered teammate Gerald Ford, who would become vice president and president of the United States.

Still, without knowing more it is harsh to consign an athletic director to ignominy because he agreed to play a game without one of his school’s players, rather than canceling or forfeiting the contest. This apparently was Yost’s worst offense, since it is the one highlighted by the Associated Press. There is much more about the Georgia Tech incident, which roiled the Michigan campus, here.

There are hints of broader transgressions:

“While we acknowledge that Yost had both successes and failures in his career, our historical analysis suggests to us that the benching of Ward was not an aberration but rather epitomized a long series of actions that worked against the integration of sports on campus,” said the President’s Advisory Committee on University History.

It is impossible to evaluate this assertion without knowing more, but the fact that Michigan’s football team was integrated by the early 1930s raises an obvious question about how strenuously he could have “worked against the integration of sports on campus.” Then, too, there is this: “A devout Christian, he was among the first coaches to allow Jewish players on his teams, including Joe Magidsohn and Benny Friedman.”

This story is one example, out of a great many, of a characteristic phenomenon of our time: the impulse to denigrate and to cancel those who have been respected for their achievements, but who allegedly don’t conform to current norms, especially on matters of race. I don’t know whom our younger generation will want to name buildings after, if anyone. Sadly, I probably won’t be around to enjoy the spectacle of the next round of honorees being found wanting by a future generation.

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