“It was a scary, rude awakening. I thought reffing IMs would be a laid-back role, that I’d have some fun. Instead, people were yelling at me — yelling, and cursing.”

I first heard about the game from one of the referees, a friend of mine. Returning from the fields where he had been refereeing IM football, he was visibly rattled: “If I made a controversial call — not even a bad call, just something they could yell about — people flipped out, started screaming,” he stammered.

Last week, during a game of IM football, two teams became entangled in an adrenaline-fueled web of crazed excitement and profanity. The game brought out the worst in the players, who threw vitriol at each other and the referee. They howled after calls and at the outcome of the game. But then something happened: Their rage faded and sportsmanship returned. The proverbial clouds lifted (though no literal clouds were present that day). Intrigued, I conducted interviews with players from both teams to discover the full story. How, I wanted to know, had tempers flared so dramatically, and how had the players become so calm again so quickly?

“Our team was undefeated for over a year, maybe more, I dunno. Our record was absolutely impeccable,” one losing player told me in his suite. “But for that game we didn’t have something.”

This team and this college weren’t used to losing. As we discussed the game, a student passing by remarked, “When I walked into the dining hall after the defeat, there was a palpable depression in the whole dining hall.” The more they spoke about the game, the more they sounded like a varsity team with recruited talent and high expectations.

“Seriously, with our team, if we just stand on the field, we’ll beat them,” the player said. “We usually destroy people. But this other team was good and we knew we’d have to play. But that’s no excuse, you know. There are no excuses for losing.”

They came close to making excuses when I asked about the refereeing. But, catching himself, one player said, “No one’s blaming it on the refs; we’re not, at least … But it’s really frustrating. You can see how frustrated I am.”

I sought out the winning team, expecting a different angle and maybe some gloating. Surely they couldn’t have been as impassioned, or else they must have forgotten their anger after the win. I was surprised to hear a similar story from the other side of the field.

“Yeah, there was a lot of yelling, a lot of trash talking,” a winning player admitted. “I was part of it, too. I guess I get really intense.” Though it was clear both sides had fueled the fire, everyone was ready to apologize and forgive.

And one by one, apparently, players released their anger. For the winners, it happened quickly: “Everyone got really angry for five minutes. What happens is everyone gets really mad and yells at the ref, but then some people keep a cool head, so some other people look like jerks, then for the next 10 minutes everyone’s really nice to everyone else,” a student said. And for the losers, it took longer. No one admitted to feeling better the day of the game, but within a few days they had mostly recovered. After the game, some approached the referee to apologize.

“I’ve run into a bunch of people on the teams since and thought, like, ‘Oh, they’ll be really mad and upset,’ but they’ve been really nice, so people got over it,” the referee told me.

So why had the players become so hostile? IMs are supposed to be casual games, played outside on nice afternoons, bringing people together in friendly competition. An IM secretary for a third college explained it to me.

“People can get really intense out there because they’re so dedicated to their colleges,” she said. “They drunkenly defend their colleges to the death, so when they’re out on the field and doing something that actually shows their college’s strength, it’s real. What college rivalry really comes down to are the people, and IMs allow people to show their mettle.”

And why had everyone calmed down afterward? If this game of IM football was important enough to provoke such aggression, how did the players manage to get over it and forget their anger? Maybe it all comes back to the spirit of IMs, lost during the game but eventually triumphant.

“I think IMs here at Yale are really good,” a winning player said. “The college system makes them awesome. I love IMs.”

“It’s fun, though, that’s all I gotta say,” one of the losers offered. “It’s only because it’s really, really fun. Do you want anything else?”

Even the abused referee finally got into the love. Like the players, he too appreciated the game more after the fact. “I want it to be known that I am one of the biggest advocates of IM sports — one of the biggest supporters, enthusiasts of IM sports. I am an IM aficionado. I would not say I’m an IM connoisseur.”

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College.