Weird Moments in Big Ten Football History #4: The Sexual Politics of Laundry, 1983
FanHouse is counting down the ten best, ten worst, and ten weirdest moments in the history of Big Ten football.
Hayden Fry was, for the media, like having an Instant Money Quote button. The West Texan coach was always good for something lively and interesting with which to season an otherwise bland story. Fry's flamboyant, down-home verbiage was an especially welcome contrast to the usual tight-lippedness of Iowans and their public figures.
Big Ten Media Day 1983, however, was a slight exception.
On that day, a reporter asked Fry if he thought college football players should receive a salary in addition to their scholarships. Fry said yes, noting that times had changed since his playing days at Baylor in the late 1940s. Back then, he said, players got $15 a month just so they could do their laundry, though few players washed their own clothes. "That wasn't any big deal," said the coach, "because you could find a little dumplin' to do the wash and then take her out to eat."
Now, there are a lot of ways in which Waco and Iowa City are not alike. Iowa City is as progressive as people tend to think it won't be. Fry's comment may have been innocent, but it certainly wasn't taken that way.
The university's chapter of the Associated Professional and Faculty women wanted Fry censured by the university for his comments. No one objected to the notion that football players in the late 1940s had other people do their laundry in exchange for a nice meal out; I'm sure that happens on campus even now. But the reference to a woman as a "little dumplin'" was just a bit too much.
Things quickly heated up as word of the Media Day comments spread. Fry's "little dumplin'" remark even made it into the New York Times, back when that was still a big deal. It must be noted, however, that Hayden Fry was nobody's idea of a bigot or a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. This is the coach who, while he was at SMU, integrated the old Southwest Conference, after all. Once Fry understood that what he said had offended many people on campus, he apologized and the matter was dropped.
It's hard to imagine one of today's media-trained, focus-grouped CEO-style coaches ever saying anything like what Fry said. Today we might see the "little dumplin'" controversy as an early example of political correctness taken to the limits. Just imagine what sports talk radio would do with such a story now. It would be all you'd hear about for days and days. Back in 1983, however, "political correctness" was a fairly obscure concept, and the Fry incident's most lasting legacy may well be that it inspired a really funny episode of the great 1980s comic strip Bloom County. I couldn't find it online, but trust me, it was great.