The Football Controversy Through The Ages

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In 1982, sports headlines across the nation read: “Football Surge Hurting Swarthmore’s Image,” “College Shuns Winning,” and “Winning Tarnishes Academic Reputation.” With an unprecedented eight-game winning streak, the media ran with a narrative that Swarthmore was ashamed of its successful football team. A team’s failure might bring disapproval at other schools – but at Swarthmore, it’s cool to lose!

In fact, the sports comic strip Tank McNamara dedicated five days of comics to “Swinburne University,” an exclusive college populated by dour intellectuals wearing oversized glasses. Students complain: “It’s time to drop football altogether, Tank – before people think we’re a public university.” A pipe-smoking, Marx-quoting professor in the swanky “Faculty Club” pontificates: “Losing at football is how we here at Swinburne reject American middle-class values.”

Yet contrary to whatever memes the media produced, most internal sources show that Swatties’ reactions ranged from proud to indifferent. The team’s success can be credited to Coach Tom Lapinski, who was appointed in 1975 following a 29-game losing streak, and proceeded to build an astounding 30-6 record through 1984. College historian Richard Walton reasons, “The press can seldom resist the temptation to be cute, and when a team of only thirty-nine players, most of them not very big, with SATs in the 1200s, starts to win, such press coverage probably is inescapable.”

Still, the administration was worried enough about tension between athletes and the rest of campus during these winning seasons that a student-faculty committee was created to investigate claims of social fracture and athletic professionalism. They found “persistent supposition that football players are recruited first as football players without adequate regard to academic qualifications,” though the report “carefully and circumstantially refutes that suspicion.” They also found that “tensions are widely perceived to be unacceptable, particularly at an institution with Swarthmore’s traditions and goals,” although only 17% believed Swarthmore’s problems were “worse than elsewhere.”

When I began my research for this column, my plan was to investigate the debate over the presence of athletics at a Quaker liberal arts school throughout its history. I specifically wanted to avoid focusing exclusively on football. I figured, abolishing football in 2000 was a big deal, sure, but there must’ve been passionate debates about other sports somewhere in Swarthmore’s history, right?

Nope. As far as I can tell, nobody’s ever argued that cross country recruitment was out of hand, or that the swim team needed to regain its amateurism. Football, on the other hand, is hard to maintain: it’s an expensive sport and you need a team large enough to be resilient to injury. It’s also representative of several principles some would argue are unsuited to Swarthmore, including the increasing competition and sensationalism of college athletics, an adherence to mainstream American culture, and just plain violence. Football forces us to examine both our resources and our ideals, and has thus always been a focal point for passionate debate about the character of Swarthmore.

Introduced in 1878, the sport enjoyed immense popularity in its first several decades, competing on the level of larger schools like UPenn, Johns Hopkins, and the military academies. Word has it, though, that strapping young lads would appear for the season and disappear afterward, never even venturing up the hill for classes. All sports were firmly in the hands of the alumni, who often paid the way for star athletes.

Swarthmore even had its own contribution to the rules of the sport. In 1905, a photo of Robert “Tiny” Maxwell ’07 staggering off the field, face bloodied, caught the attention of the national press. President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to abolish football nationwide if colleges didn’t clean it up. The country listened: authorities expanded the yardage required for a first down from five to ten, reduced game time by ten minutes, and legalized the forward pass. Leave it to Swarthmore to make football more peaceful.

The Maxwell incident sparked a debate over the place of football at Swarthmore, and the discussion exploded with the famous Jeanes bequest of 1907. In her will, the wealthy Quaker Anna T. Jeanes made a conditional gift to the college: Swarthmore would receive her coal lands and mineral rights, rumored to be worth a million dollars, if the college would permanently “discontinue and abandon all participation in Intercollegiate athletics, sports and games.”

A million dollars in 1907 was pretty incredible, and heated debates soon followed. Opinions in the Friends Intelligencer generally supported taking the money, but the Phoenix was firmly in the tank for athletics. An editorial read: “Think of it! Never again to cheer the Garnet waving proudly in victory or defeat; never again to hear the old bell clang exultantly or the bonfire’s roaring crackle; never again to feel that proud, challenging loyalty for college that grips the throat and moistens the eye!”

Of course, the college declined the money. The Board declared, “[I]f competitive games with other colleges are on the whole objectionable, they should be abolished for that reason, and not because of the tender of a sum of money.” The Board did, however, feel that “football especially was too prominent a part of the affairs of the College,” and abolished it for the 1908 season. They brought back football the next year under the condition that students pay athletic fees along with their tuition, rather than relying on alumni funding.

Almost a century later, Swarthmore permanently abolished football. Al Bloom is in the books as the guy who got rid of it, so I was surprised to find that in 1998, he was the self-proclaimed “champion of football,” hiring more coaches and recruiting more aggressively. In an Alumni Bulletin article, Professor Barry Schwartz stated, “I think Al was moved by the football team’s arguments that this was a significant part of their lives, and that an institution that is as committed as we claim to be to allowing people to flourish in the various ways that people flourish ought to include this.”

The 2000 decision to get rid of football, then, was particularly notable for its sudden reversal of fortune. Coach Peter Alvanos said the coaches did “everything Al Bloom asked us to do.” More unusual was the way the Board of Managers made the decision; the issue was put to a vote, rather than abiding by the Quaker method of unanimous consensus. Members felt that subverting the normal protocol was acceptable in this situation, since unanimity would never be reached. Several members of the Board resigned over the decision, including Neil Austrian ’61, former NFL president. The last time the Board defied consensus was 1922.

Recruiting was the deciding factor, by most accounts. By eliminating football and wrestling, and making women’s badminton a club rather than varsity sport (which the team then successfully lobbied against, after the Board’s decision), Admissions dropped the percentage of students “for which athletic talent or interest is a deciding factor” from 17% to 10-15%. Moreover, all 21 sports (rather than 12 out of 24 previously) could now benefit from recruiting.

However, there are those who believed this change said more about the college’s value system than admissions recruiting. Inquirer magazine ran a front-page story in May 2001 about the issue, asserting, “the elite college repudiated one of the great symbols of modern America – not because football was too expensive, as a few other colleges have found, but because it might tarnish the academic excellence Swarthmore holds dear.” Later, the article personifies Swarthmore as “the nerd on a library date.” Subtle.

Many colleges wouldn’t even consider dropping the football team, and disenchanted alumni who complain that the 2000 decision can be seen as a value judgment are probably right. Still, football’s loss has clearly been other sports’ gain. I’m left pondering a question Professor of Economics John Caskey raised when he asked in 1998: “Is there some limit to the number of things you can be excellent in and stay a small college?”

Also, we need to bring back this cheer. From the files of the Friends Library:
“Pericles, Sophocles, Peloponnesian War;
X-Squared, Y-Squared, H2SO4;
Cosine, Tangent, Secant, Ray;
Swarthmore, Swarthmore, all the way!”

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