I’d like to confess to a minor act of vandalism.
On a warm Thursday earlier this month, several of my baseball teammates and I were tasked with preparing the Yale Bowl for the team’s scrimmage against Brown that Saturday. We had to hang the Ivy League Championship banners on the wall surrounding the field, organize just over one hundred chairs for the players in the meeting room and clip up the pennants of the other Ivies to the flag posts along the top of the bowl.
While we were clipping the flags along the top of the empty stadium, I noticed the seat on the top row of the bleachers had nearly rotted all the way through. In a moment of keen intellect, I decided to drag my foot along the back of the board to make sure.
Unfortunately, I was spot on. My foot hit the seat and a grapefruit-sized chunk of flaky wood fell from the back of the bench and broke into a lump of sawdust on the concrete. Perhaps more an accident than vandalism, but I still felt guilty. It seemed as if, while on a tour of a grand medieval castle, I had leaned over the “Do Not Cross” rope in the dining room, bumped a priceless vase and watched as it shattered on the floor.
And, in a sense, that is exactly what I had done.
The Yale Bowl bleeds history. It is one of only four other football stadiums in the country honored as a national historic landmark; The Rose Bowl (modeled after the Yale Bowl), Soldier Field and a certain concrete monstrosity in Cambridge hold the honor as well. The design for the Bowl was proposed by Charles A. Ferry, an alum from the class of 1871, and was built by over 145 men from the Sperry Construction Co. of New Haven. Ground was broken on June 23, 1913 and just over a year later, on Nov. 14, 1914, the gates opened for the first time.
The structure was unlike anything in the world — indeed, at that point, it was the largest stadium on Earth. An outdoor, wrap-around amphitheater of its magnitude had not been built since the Roman Coliseum. So while war raged across Europe (on the morning of Nov. 14 the headlines of The New York Times read “Germans Push British Line Back But Fail in Assault of Ypres”) around 65,000 people, from all over the country, crammed through the downward-sloping entryways to behold the architectural marvel. (Despite this colossal new stadium, we still managed to get trounced by the Crimson 36-0.)
Since that November day, the Bowl has enjoyed a century’s worth of history equal to the grandeur of its opening. The stadium has hosted a panoply of concerts from the Glenn Miller Band to the Grateful Dead, international soccer matches, tennis matches, lacrosse games, theater productions, the 1995 Special Olympics, NFL teams such as the Giants and the Jets — and, oh yes, our beloved Bulldogs. Since calling the Bowl home, the Bulldogs have enjoyed eight undefeated seasons, two Heisman trophy winners — Larry Kelley ’36 and Clint Frank ’37 — 14 Ivy League Championships, and one National Championship. At its peak, the average attendance at games was upwards of 40,000, but the Bowl has held crowds larger than 70,000 on 20 occasions, even reaching 80,000 for the Yale-Army game in 1923.
Today, things are different.
Thanks largely to the rise of television and the advent of athletic scholarships, college football has surged in the last 50 years. From Lee Corso and College Gameday, to stadiums that seat over 100,000 people — larger than most NFL stadiums — to Tim Tebow, Johnny Football and the Alabama Crimson Tide, college football has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that hardly exudes the amateurism by which college sports abide. An industry where universities reap huge profits off the television contracts their football teams attract. An industry that has left smaller Division I schools in an adapt-or-die situation. It’s a quandary that has left many schools like Yale limping along in the background.
Even this week, the famous College Gameday show turned down the Yale v. Army game, a rivalry steeped in history and tradition, for this week’s headline Southeastern Conference matchup — South Carolina v. Missouri.
“It’s too easy,” Steve Conn, Associate Athletics Director of Sports Publicity at Yale, tells me. “[There’s an] oversaturated market on television … on basic television you can get 10 games.”
“Big time [college] football has gone berserk,” echoes Sterling professor of classics and history Donald Kagan. “Distant from values we used to pertain to intercollegiate sport.” He goes so far as to call it an “ugly scene of venality and corruption.”
And somewhere apart from this madness sits the Ivy League. Ivy League schools are forbidden to award athletic scholarships. Rarely are any of their sporting events televised nationally, and if they are, never by ESPN or any other major network. And God forbid if College Gameday decides to sojourn in New Haven for a weekend. Meanwhile, the league maintains its standard of balancing athletic and academic excellence, in no particular order. Kagan continues, “We recruit athletes and we do insist they are appropriate students … And, from my experience, they are.” The league, in turn, does its best to hold up what many regard as the old image of intercollegiate athletics: professional students performing at the highest level of amateur athletics the country can offer. But attendance rates have suffered because of this adherence to the old.
Today the Bowl, just as in 1914, sits beneath a hill covered in burnt yellow-grass, silent and sprawling with an ovular, lush field of green at the base. The Bulldogs have not had a whiff of a national championship or a Heisman Trophy in over half a century. In fact, it’s been nearly a decade since our last Ivy League title. And although Yale is usually near the top of the league in attendance, with numbers varying year-to-year between 15,000 and 25,000 per game, when placed in the context of a stadium that seats nearly 65,000, it’s hardly something to brag about.
But according to Yale football players today, regardless of whether there are 800 or 80,000 on hand, the Bowl retains its magic. “The Bowl’s a special place,” says offensive tackle Khalid Cannon ’17. “It was where football was invented … Playing there, it’s just an indescribable feeling … Then to look in the stands and see it’s empty, it kinda just hurts your heart.”
Cannon’s teammate, fullback Jackson Stallings ’17, chimes in, “I remember standing on the 50 yard line on my visit here and just was overwhelmed with emotion at how great the place was. But you really start to take a close look at it and you realize the deterioration of such an important structure is truly sad, and you don’t want to let it get to a point where it can’t be brought back.”
Other team members lament what they feel is a further deterioration of the Bowl and its significance to Yale’s campus. And according to Kagan, it’s a trend we should fight to reverse. “Just the fact that we have athletics,” he asserts, “broadens our understanding of what the human is.”
Conn concludes with a commentary on the intrinsic value of football to the Yale experience. Ultimately, he says, the team and the Bowl have served as the foundation for modern American collegiate football. Going to the Bowl and watching the 107 shoulder-padded men who give life to the historic stadium, fosters both a school and a communal pride, a loyalty for all things Yale blue. For Conn, the lesson is evident: Go to football games.
This Saturday, the Bulldogs will take on Army to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. I’d get there early. I hear there’s supposed to be a big crowd.
Contact David McCullough at