In his three years at Yale, Calvin Hill ’69 was utterly dominant. He ran, returned, received and passed for 2,527 all-purpose yards — which, when adjusted for 2018 yardage inflation, equates to 1.34 bajillion yards. In his three seasons, Yale won three Ivy League titles. Hill was a legend on the field and an honors student in the classroom.
With the possible exception of the Hall of Fame — and for some athletes, I imagine, even including the Hall of Fame — the greatest honor athletes could ever receive is having their jersey retired. It’s a sign of devotion from the city or school in which they played, a recognition of sustained greatness.
Why, then, do we fail to retire numbers here at Yale? Why is someone on the football team playing in Calvin Hill’s No. 30?
There seem to be two legitimate arguments against retiring jerseys.
One argument reasons that not retiring jerseys demonstrates that a program elevates the team over the individual. It’s the reason Yale does not put its current players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. This mark of anonymity shows that the four letters on the front are more important than on the back.
Frankly, I love that we don’t have names. But this does not prohibit us from retiring jerseys. Ask the New York Yankees, who will never again have a player wearing any single digit number on the diamond after the team retires Derek Jeter’s number, which is as surefire an event as an E-A-G-L-E-S chant happening at Thursday’s Super Bowl parade. Honoring athletes after they leave does not elevate the individual over the team because these athletes are no longer on the team. Recognizing the franchise’s greatest players has never inhibited the Yankees from winning a historic 27 World Series.
A second argument against retiring jerseys is that if colleges retire numbers, particularly in a sport like football, in which Yale has 106 players on the roster, then rather quickly, there won’t be very many numbers remaining. Yet, this, too, does not seem like much of a problem.
First, the large number of players in football does not mean that you can never retire a jersey, but rather that you have to be more judicious about how many jerseys you retire. A powerhouse school like Georgia — which has produced countless NFL players — has retired just four football jerseys in its history. Since Yale doesn’t exactly have dozens of Calvin Hills running through its program these days, it’s safe to say that Hill will forever remain one of Yale’s four greatest players.
Second, hypothetically, even if there were so many retired numbers that everyone on the team had to double up, this too would clearly not be a problem because teams frequently have the same number of defensive and offensive players. At Penn State, the team’s best player — Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley — shared a number with a freshman safety.
Third, in certain circumstances common to the SEC, a player’s number is “retired” in a new form, enabling future athletes to continue donning the digits. At LSU, National Champion quarterback Matt Mauck wore No. 18. Now, each year, Mauck’s number is awarded to the player who “possesses the integrity, resilience, character and selflessness all of LSU’s football players and representatives strive to build within themselves.” In this way, Mauck’s number is both honored and passed on to future generations. Why doesn’t Yale do something similar with Hill’s No. 30?
This is the heart of the issue. If there does not appear to be an adequate reason to refrain from retiring numbers, why doesn’t Yale do it? We can’t pay our college athletes — but maybe, by honoring them, we can repay them for their service.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org