November 13, 1875: 2500 spectators gather in New Haven’s Hamilton Park to watch two of the oldest schools in America face off in a match that was, at the time, little more than a variation on rugby. The crowd didn’t know it at the time, but the game would mark the beginning of a rich tradition — and a fervent rivalry.
Although Harvard won that day, it is Yale’s Walter Camp ’82 (as in 1882) who is considered the founding father of American football. Meanwhile, the University’s coaches acted as “football missionaries” of sorts, bringing the sport to colleges across the country, explained Yale historian Jay Gitlin ’71. And across decades of curricular changes and upheaval on campus, Yale’s football players rallied onwards before roaring crowds.
After Yale invented football, football invented Yale.
“It’s football that really pushed Yale as kind of a national ideal,” Gitlin said. Yale brought football into the national consciousness. Other universities copied Yale’s mascot, its colors, its fight songs. Even the comic book character “Archie” had a blue and white pennant on his wall, Gitlin said.
American children consumed the “fantastically popular” dime magazine stories of fictional Yale student Frank Merriwell, who not only played every sport imaginable but found the time to solve mysteries and generally save the day.
“He’s everybody’s boyhood hero. He’s upstanding, he’s a good athlete, he’s well rounded — he’s what you want to be,” Gitlin said, adding that these images of Yale athletes in the popular consciousness made people across the country feel like “Yale was the place to be all-American.”
November 19, 2011: A lukewarm crowd gathers at the Yale Bowl. Students decked out in blue watch their football team stumble towards its fifth consecutive defeat. Many of them choose to simply stumble out of the stands during half-time.
Elaina Plott ’15, a cheerleader at the Game, was surprised to see the numbers in the stadium dwindle. In her home state of Alabama, she explained, “You stay with your team till the very end,” she said. “no matter how the game is going.”
At Yale, relatively few students remained in the stands to witness the team’s 45-7 loss.
November 14, 2012: No one would know the biggest athletic event of the year is on Saturday. The past two times the Game was held in Cambridge, student tickets sold out within days. This year, 250 student tickets were left unsold by the time sales ended Wednesday. And out of roughly 70 students interviewed, only one or two expressed hope that Yale would emerge victorious from the Game this year.
“Everybody wants to see us beat Harvard,” football player Keith Coty ’14 said. Coty said he has noticed an interesting dynamic surrounding the Game on campus, citing student-made t-shirts with messages like, “My hatred for Harvard outweighs my apathy for football.”
Nevertheless, Coty looks forward to the Game with purpose.
“We do it for Yale, for the tradition and pride. We want you guys to be proud of us,” he said. “We haven’t deserved it yet.”
For much of the 20th century, Yale was known as an athletics powerhouse — and not only in football. Chemistry professor Martin Saunders, who began teaching at Yale in 1955, said he remembers his research assistant John Nelson ’70 winning Olympic medals for swimming at the 1968 Olympic Games. And this wasn’t unusual.
“Yale was a big deal in athletics,” Saunders said. And while “it wasn’t Ohio State,” as one 1969 alumnus put it, “there was a pride in it.”
This same alumnus recalled one Thursday night before the annual Princeton game when students threw a “spontaneous pep rally” on campus. Yalies marched up Hillhouse Avenue, he remembered, where then-president Kingman Brewster Jr. came out onto the balcony of his house with an orange (Princeton’s school color) and squeezed the juice out of it, to the approval of roaring students.
Football is not as central to the average Ivy League experience nowadays, Gitlin explained, citing changes in the demographic makeup of campuses across the board — student bodies are no longer all white, male and American-born. This rise in diversity, he said, has made it more difficult for the campus to adopt a shared identity.
Nevertheless, prior to Levin’s tenure, Yale maintained the same set of policies and attitudes toward athletics as the rest of the schools in the Ivy League. As president, Levin has reduced the percentage of athletic recruits from 18 percent in the class of 1998 to 13 percent in the class of 2015.
For the latter class, Yale recruited 53 fewer athletes than the 230 that are allowed under Ivy League regulations. Yale still recruits 30 football players per year, like every other Ivy League school, Levin said. He added that Yale tries to create “a good balance” between the interests of the athletic program and “having the most excellent student body” all around.
Nevertheless, athletes, coaches and alumni have bemoaned the cuts as having contributed to a decline in Yale’s overall athletic performance.
These recruitment caps have prevented groups like Yale’s track and cross country teams from qualifying for every event, said team member Kevin Lunn ’13.
“We take just as much pride in running for Yale as if we had a full large team,” Lunn said. “But we do go into it knowing we can’t win.”
Regardless of how well individual runners perform, he explained, the restriction have made it impossible to compete against the likes of Cornell and Princeton — teams with easily twice the numbers.
“The expectation [has been] that, on an Ivy League level at least, the goal was to win,” the 1969 alumnus reflected. “Yale is voluntarily disarming.”
THE RISING CRIMSON TIDE
There are six minutes and 36 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, Mass. is packed with fans decked out in shades of red, both sides boasting full and lively student sections. The Harvard men’s basketball team, last year’s Ivy League champions, is facing its rivals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Harvard is leading 57 to 46 and not a single Crimson-attired body remains seated in the student stands. When one of the fans, donning a black “Harvard Hoops” t-shirt, is asked if he has a moment to talk, he recoils.
“During the game?” he snapped back. For many Cantabs, the enthusiasm for basketball stems from Harvard’s growing success in the sport.
The sports hall in the Murr Center, which hosts Harvard’s squash and tennis teams, features a crimson-colored wall board with blown-up photographs and descriptions of Harvard’s athletic history. One heading reads, “The Ancient Eight,” another, “The Integration of Academics and Athletics.” It is a reminder that the Ivy League was originally founded as an athletic organization, with schools placing emphasis on their ability to combine scholarship with sportsmanship.
While Yale has been cutting recruitment, Harvard has aggressively pursued prospective athletes to the point of committing secondary National Collegiate Athletic Association violations in 2010, when its men’s basketball team enjoyed a record-breaking season. Following 60 years without playing in a single NCAA basketball tournament, Harvard had hired Coach Tommy Amaker to re-work the school’s methods of recruitment.
While the exact nature of Harvard’s new measures are unclear, one thing is unquestionable: since Amaker was hired, Harvard has won big in basketball, with the team making it to March Madness last year.
This “blow-up of basketball brought sports to relevancy to a lot of people who had never cared before,” said Claire Dailey, a sports editor for the Harvard Crimson.
The Crimson’s athletic success has gone beyond basketball. During the 2011-2012 academic year, Harvard and Princeton won ten Ivy League Championships apiece. For Yale, the total was two.
“Now there’s a sense that not only are we smart and talented, but that we are also athletic,” said Harvard junior Amy Alemu.
FROM ‘MYTHICAL CREATURES’ TO ‘REALLY TALL POLI-SCI MAJORS’
In a typical week during the fall season, Yale Women’s Ice Hockey defenseman Emily DesMeules ’13 will spend over 20 hours on her sport — either training at the rink, attending meetings with the team or traveling to away games. Her schedule is organized to the minute, so that in between classes, lifts and practice, she finds time to complete her schoolwork. “It’s not easy,” DesMeules admitted.
Saturdays are game days. These are packed with team meals, pre-game warm-ups and video meetings in which the coaches review the strategies used by rival teams. If the team is traveling, Thursday, Friday and Sunday may be devoted to the sport, too. And win or lose, the cycle begins again at the beginning of each week.
To be sure, most Yale students are invested in rigorous, time-consuming extracurriculars. But unlike groups for which it is possible to miss a meeting during a busy week, in varsity athletics, missing a practice or a game is not an option. And when it’s time to train between seasons, DesMeules quipped, “you can spot teammates from a distance because they’re so sore they’re not walking straight — they’re waddling.”
The time commitment and discipline required to play on a varsity team are unimaginable to most nonathletes. Historically, the Yale athlete was considered, “a sober, mythical character,” said Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13. “They were considered the most rigorous and upstanding members of the community.” Zelinsky is a columnist for the News.
But Bulldogs no longer enjoy the reputation they once did.
“I don’t know what athletes do,” Kiara Hearn ’13 said. “When I think of athletes, I just think of really tall poli-sci majors.”
On October 21, the Yale College Council released their Presidential Search Report “to reflect student opinion for the presidential search process.” Of the 820 students who responded to the YCC’s campus-wide survey, 45 percent said that the next president should “keep the status quo” in terms of recruitment, which was capped during Levin’s tenure.
“Athletics detract from Yale and dilute the intelligence of the student body,” one anonymous respondent wrote. “Yale should be working to produce a graduating class of thinkers and doers, not a group of individuals who have survived four years of schooling.” A comment on page 39 read, “It is probable that athletes, on average, are of worse moral character than the rest of Yale students, given events of the past couple years.”
Other non-athletes share a sentiment similar to that expressed in the YCC report. “From my observations I think football players and people like that exhibit this kind of anti-intellectualism that detracts from campus intellectual life,” a male sophomore told the News.“I think it’s an anti-intellectual, contrarian vein.”
Stereotypes about the athletics-academics dichotomy may simply be embedded in American culture. According to several students interviewed, these misconceptions might arise due to excessive media depictions of students who fit into neat categories, in which jocks are portrayed as “socially successful, intellectually not,” Sarah Norvell ’15 said.
But at least some of the stigma surrounding athletes on campus comes from the idea that athletes are both detracting from the school’s intellectual environment — and not even winning in the meantime.
“If those players gave us something to root for, people would go [to sport games],” said one Yalie. “We lose anyway, so what’s the point?”
For others, such as the founding members of the Whaling Crew, attending college sports games has an intrinsic value.
Inspired by the men’s hockey team’s No. 1 national standing in 2010, the Whaling Crew was founded last year to encourage school spirit and to bolster turnout at hockey games, Andrew Sobotka ’15, one of the club’s four founders, said that rather than viewing sports events as something foreign, Yalies should consider the hard work that their fellow students have put into the games.
“These athletes are representing us,” Sobotka added. “These aren’t superstars on the field — they’re our classmates, our suitemates, our partners in Spanish class.”
The “point,” the members of the Whaling Crew would contend, is to return Yale to its previous role as “a pioneer in sports.”
But even when it comes to the Game, most students question the value of attending an event from which the Bulldogs have so little chance of emerging victorious.
“I don’t think $20 is worth the experience of losing,” Bechir-Auguste Pierre ’15 said.
At Harvard, students were quick to point out that their own interest in sports is nothing compared to that at state schools. Out of over 20 Harvard students interviewed for this article, none associated their mild enthusiasm for athletics to a sports team’s performance, or any kind of stigma surrounding athletes.
“I think people are just busy,” said a Cantab studying in Lamont Library. “They find there are more exciting things to do with their time.” Asked for an example, he replied, “like listening to famous people talk.”
At a gathering hosted by the Harvard chapter of Sigma Chi last Friday, a few brothers laughed over talk of the school’s athletics.
“Honestly, we don’t have an athletic culture — it sucks,” one brother quipped.
The Cantabs held red solo cups and leaned casually against the walls. The atmosphere is pretty laid-back — the real party that night probably involved Final Clubs, guest lists and bouncers.
A moose head hangs over the mantel, and at one corner of the living room a brother and two girls in sundresses are seated around a poker table, talking loudly. Many of the brothers wear baseball caps and tanks with the Sigma Chi insignia.
When told about some of Yale’s Greek organizations, one senior brother who introduces himself as Sean is taken aback by the idea of fraternities that cater primarily to sports players.
“Sigma Chi is pretty diverse,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a frat that is all athletes on campus.
Back in New Haven, there are not only houses for specific athletic teams, but also fraternities in which a large proportion of members play the same varsity sport. Alpha Delta Phi is known for having many brothers who play on the lacrosse team, whereas Delta Kappa Epsilon and Zeta Psi are considered the “football frats.”
Jesse Pritchard ’14, a guard on the men’s basketball team, said that while he is involved in many activities outside of sports, he has noticed a social gap between athletes and nonathletes.
“It’s oftentimes frustrating,” he noted. “A lot of athletes have this idea in their head … that they won’t get along with other students, so they don’t branch out.”
For Yalies, the University administration has also furthered the divide between the worlds of athletics and academia by imposing restrictions on its sports programs. Its policies have directly influenced the way athletes are perceived by the rest of the student body, several athletes interviewed told the News.
Stereotypes about athletes may be everywhere — but if “policies reflect those undertones … [they do] go to validate these misguided beliefs that people might hold,” said Jamey Silveira ’13, president of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and a former varsity lacrosse player.
Will Davenport ’15, a member of the varsity golf team, agreed that the administration’s stance on recruiting sets the tone for how athletes are regarded by all members of the campus community. Davenport said he and his peers sometimes avoid identifying themselves as athletes to their professors because it could make them question a student’s intelligence. And this, he said, is an attitude that “comes from the top.”
RECLAIMING THE GAME
President Levin’s announcement that he would be stepping down at the end of this school year sparked a flood of declarations celebrating his legacy.
Administrators and alumni interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the announcement expressed hope that the new president would maintain many of Levin’s policies in arts and academics. But for many members of the sports community, Levin’s departure signified an opportunity to amend some of the much-decried athletic policies.
In October, while Yale’s presidential search process was still underway, members of the Yale Sports Federation, which described itself as an “association of all the Yale Associations that support their individual sports at Yale,” addressed a letter to Committee Chair Charles Goodyear ’80 and the rest of the search committee.
They were calling for Levin’s successor to return athletics to their “proper role” in the undergraduate experience.
“Yale has fallen behind Harvard and Princeton, not only in wins and losses, but more importantly in valuing the lessons taught by participation and success in varsity athletics,” the letter read.
Following the announcement of Provost Peter Salovey as the president-elect, some students were heartened. Pritchard, who had the opportunity to have dinner with Salovey several times when he was still provost, said he is “extremely” hopeful that the recruitment policies will be reviewed.
Nick Daffin ’13, the president of DKE and a defensive lineman for the men’s football team, said that he felt encouraged by Salovey’s appearance at football practice the Tuesday before this year’s Game, a gesture that Daffin noted was never extended by Levin during Daffin’s time at Yale.
“I’m sure he’s incredibly busy, so it was really nice just to know that he was supporting us,” Daffin remarked. “It really meant a lot to the guys.”
Salovey joked to the players about how he also spent a lot of time around the football team when he was younger — as a musician in his high school marching band.
In an email to the News, Salovey said that he and his wife Marta Moret had attended three sports games last Saturday, including football, volleyball and men’s ice hockey. He added, “I’m confident, by the way, that Yale will pull a major upset at The Game on Saturday. Marta and I will be there to cheer them on.”