This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

LSA takes a look at Allen Jackson, a Wolverine who aired similar grievances more than 60 years ago—and stirred some passionate reactions by speaking out.

With Michigan trailing Cal 6-0 at halftime of the 1951 Rose Bowl, a three-year-letterman named Al Jackson ('51) stood up in the locker room and made a fiery speech to his teammates. The speech was so powerful that several players later attributed the Wolverines’ second-half rally to Jackson’s pep talk. Michigan won the game 14-6, and the next day’s New York Times featured a picture of Jackson alongside the paper’s account of the game. Jackson started all nine games in the 1950–51 season. He made big plays in the storied “Snow Bowl” victory over Ohio State in November, and the Times proclaimed him a “hero” of the 1951 Rose Bowl win. 

But Jackson was troubled by what was required of a big-time college football player. He estimated that he had spent about 810 hours in the six history courses he took, while his hours on the gridiron came to 1,350. And that didn’t even include football film study.

After graduating from LSA with an English degree in 1951, Jackson decided that what had been done to him was wrong, and he decided to say something about it.

Student of the Game

The October 1951 issue of the Atlantic Monthly features a 6,600-word article by Allen Jackson titled “Too Much Football” that told his side of the Michigan football story. The article—delivered in calm, considered prose—blamed alumni and fans for a “distortion of the sporting spirit” of football, and for placing too much emphasis on winning at the expense of the education and well-being of the young men on the field. The article deemed college football “a poor bargain for the boys who play the game.”

Allen Jackson in his Wolverines uniform. The footballer led an adventurous life after U-M, doing graduate study in England; working in a copper mine in Butte, Montana; and writing and narrating an album of satire on Folkways Records called Varsity Cheer: A History of Western Civilization at Halftime.
Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

Reaction was immediate and widespread. Both the Associated Press and the New York Times wrote articles on Jackson’s piece. Time magazine showed the article’s effects reaching well beyond the Big House, affecting football fans across the country: “From West Point to William and Mary, college football had been thrown for a loss even before the season got under way. Last week, while football fans were flocking by the thousands to watch the slightly tarnished Saturday heroes in action, an ex-University of Michigan guard named Allen Jackson brought the ball carrier down again with a flying tackle.”

Read and React

Michigan coach Bennie Oosterbaan (’28) answered Jackson’s charges with polite equanimity, saying, “Jackson is entitled to his opinion, but I believe it is an isolated one. If many of the charges were true, I would not be part of this staff.”

Athletic Director Fritz Crisler was more blunt. “I am not surprised at anything [Jackson] might write,” Crisler said. According to Jackson’s sister, Caroline Jackson Blakemore, the very public way that Jackson criticized Michgan’s athletic program was symptomatic of a broader dissatisfaction that Jackson had with the world.

“Allen had a difficult life,” says Blakemore. “He was extremely smart and had a wonderful memory. He could recite Shakespearian sonnets and Tennyson poems. He read everything and was a wonderful writer.

“But how can I say... he was a bit difficult,” she continues. “He burned his bridges. He would do what he did at the University of Michigan [throughout the rest of his life]. He would find stuff to criticize and then he would criticize it.”

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (second from right) speaks at a news conference last January, announcing the formation of the first labor union for college athletes. A vote to unionize came after a regional National Labor Relations Board ruled that student athletes at private universities were actually “employees.”
Photo by Paul Beaty/AP/Corbis

For Dan Dworsky (U-M ’50), Jackson’s teammate in the 1940s and a famed architect whose works include the Crisler Center, Jackson’s article was just part of his toughness. Dworsky describes Jackson as a “hard-nosed player, a guard, a lineman who would come up bloodied.”

“I respected the way he played football,” said Dworsky.

At a team reunion decades later, Dworsky and his wife went out of their way to have lunch with Jackson, who was shunned by other former players because of what he had written.

“Too Much Football” was anthologized occasionally and now seems prescient in its articulation of the pressures facing student athletes, a topic that is still in the news. But football didn’t define Jackson. He wrote plays and made spoken word recordings in the 1960s, and he continued working as an artist, writer, and performer, entering poetry slam competitions until very close to the end of his life. He died in August 2010 in Trenton, New Jersey, at the age of 83.


Cover photo and top photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library