On Saturday, Army and Navy will face off in a football tradition that dates back to 1890 and has been contested continuously since 1930. Instead of playing the game in a packed stadium in Philadelphia, Baltimore or New York, for the first time since 1943 the contest will take place at West Point’s Michie Stadium. The smaller venue is a sign of the unprecedented times, when some schools have opted out of playing the entire season and covid-19 outbreaks have derailed conferences and title games. Many have questioned why college football games are even happening amid a pandemic killing thousands of Americans per day.

Controversy over playing college football during a time of national crisis is nothing new. In fact, during World War II there was a heated debate over the continuation of the premier college sport while so many Americans were in harm’s way overseas. The outcome of that debate reveals why the games continue in 2020.

The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor aroused deep concerns among college officials about the merit of playing the game. By 1941 college presidents and administrators had erected a lucrative arrangement focused on football. They contended that winning teams publicized their schools, attracted students and cemented the loyalty of alumni, who displayed their “old school spirit” with fat donations.

The outbreak of war, however, threatened the cozy arrangement. Hundreds of thousands of healthy male undergraduates raced off and enlisted. Millions more were ultimately drafted. By the beginning of the spring 1942 semester, college campuses were noticeably short on men, and football faced a moral and numbers crisis. If an undergrad was strong and healthy enough to run, block and tackle, shouldn’t he be in uniform toting a rifle? And if this was the case, where were all the boys needed to play a football game going to come from?

A partial solution to the football manpower dilemma actually came from the armed services. The Army, Navy and Marines desperately needed junior commissioned officers, and what better place to teach and train thousands of them than on college campuses? After all, schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue had instruction and training at the core of their mission. As a result, throughout the nation men returned to campuses, and universities and colleges began to grind out ensigns and lieutenants in the thousands.

Just having men on campus, however, didn’t solve the player shortage for teams. Under Gen. George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in November 1942 the War Department established the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which eventually included 241 schools. A lean, focused, no-nonsense program, it prohibited trainees from playing any intercollegiate sports, a decision that effectively sounded a death knell for schools such as Alabama. (The Crimson Tide didn’t even field a team in 1943.)

Americans interested in the fate of football expected Navy Secretary Frank Knox similarly to bar his service’s trainees from participation in varsity sports. But after a vigorous internal debate, naval authorities decided that football was too important to put on the scrap heap of the war. Cmdr. Thomas J. Hamilton, the driving force behind Navy’s decision, argued, “Competition is as old as the Navy itself and it is just as traditionally Navy as John Paul Jones.” For Hamilton, the holy trinity was: “Football! Navy! War! At no time in history have these words been more intermeshed than they now are.”

And so, while ASTPs banned participation in intercollegiate sports, their Navy counterparts embraced football as an instructive, even vital part of their training program. The Navy established “V-Programs” at 131 schools. The V-12 program that trained Marine officers quickly became the prize for any football-minded university because it attracted aggressive officer candidates, many of whom had previous varsity football experience and could now freely transfer to schools with successful V-12 programs. In 1943, for instance, Notre Dame, home of a large V-12 program, ranked first in the football polls, and Purdue with its own V-12 contingent finished the season undefeated.

Of course, like today, the national crisis forced small changes. Freshmen, who had not previously been allowed to play on varsity teams, now did so. Eligibility rules were quickly discarded. Players sometimes showed up on campus, played a handful of games, finished their training and then disappeared off to war.

During the 1943 season, Tony Butkovich departed the University of Illinois, attended Purdue’s V-12 program and led the Big Ten in rushing and scoring. He also received his commission and in 1944 shipped overseas. That year the then-Cleveland Rams selected him with their first pick in the NFL draft. But he never played in the NFL — on April 18, 1945 a Japanese sniper killed him during the battle of Okinawa.

Football also continued at the U.S. Military Academy and Annapolis. Actually, it thrived. The coaches at the academies recruited outstanding players from powerhouse football programs to attend their institutions. Not only would recruits receive the finest military training, they would get to play three more years of college football on what amounted to all-star teams. The future all-American and Heisman Trophy-winning Felix “Doc” Blanchard, for instance, transferred from the University of North Carolina to the U.S. Military Academy.

To be sure, the football spectacle changed to accommodate the realities of the war. For the 1943 Army-Navy game President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a low-key affair. Because of travel restrictions, Michie Stadium was barely half-filled. The Navy brass refused to allow Midshipmen from Annapolis to attend the game.

Yet in a show of wartime unity, the Army band burst into Michie playing Navy’s song “Anchors Aweigh,” before swinging into “On Brave Old Army Team.” Further, the entire First Regiment of Cadets was required to learn and execute Navy cheers, and outwardly root for the blue-and-gold.

Perhaps they did their duty too well. Led by several all-American University of Alabama transfers, Navy demonstrated why it was one of the finest teams in the country with a convincing 13-0 victory.

The game in 1943, as well as the contest on Saturday, demonstrated the hold the college game has on the country. Neither war, pandemic or political divisions have stopped the action.