Column: The natural progression of college sports
What are we looking at here? Is this a dream, a Hollywood film or maybe the backdrop to a Salinger story? In the first two scenarios, some tragedy would befall the team before its last game, and it would come clawing back to a heart-pounding and tear-inducing victory in the New England mud (in the third, we couldn’t care less about the game). The Tigers would finish 11-0, claim the national championship and sail off into the sunset.
Or is it the story of the 1897 season, in which Princeton somehow dropped the final game to its rivals in blue by a heartbreaking 6-0 score, one of only nine losses all decade? Was this just six years after the graduation of the legendary Edgar A. Poe (not that one), Class of 1891, and just 25 years before the 1922 “Team of Destiny” took the field? Was this the height of Orange-and-Black dominance, when college football was king and Princeton captured the national championship 28 times?
“Yes,” is the short and obvious answer. But this age of dominance has long passed, and the current iteration of the team — though proud and respectable in its own right — is a far cry from what it once was. Such is the natural progression of collegiate athletics. By and large, as niche sports grow in popularity and marketability, schools like Princeton (and yes, Harvard and Yale) fall away from the center of attention and recede to the periphery.
The above sketch of the 1897 Tigers is a real one, but perhaps it does not do justice to the weird game college football was at the time. (This is how these transformations start — the sport and the dominant schools look nothing like they eventually will.) The previous year, Princeton beat the University of Virginia by more than it beat Lawrenceville — which, wait a minute, is where I went to high school. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt expressed concern about the violence of the game and brought together representatives from Princeton, Harvard and Yale to fix it. The NCAA was soon founded and, before long, football turned from a dangerous distraction into a national obsession. Now, the thought of the Tigers matching up against Penn State, Virginia or Michigan is entirely unfathomable.
This is a clean and prolonged example, though — such progressions are not always obvious or clearly delineated. They are often logical but evident only once they’ve gone far enough. And, at this moment, we may be seeing signs of this kind of change on lacrosse fields and squash courts throughout the country.
Let’s look at the natural course of such a sport from a purely abstract perspective. When a game emerges with particularly high barriers to entry (i.e. expensive equipment and scant playing surfaces clustered in specific regions), it is liable to remain a niche activity for some time until it is somehow popularized by a widespread initiative or directed programming. Historically, “expensive” sports have thrived at schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale. But as the sports spread in popularity, both into cities and into the West, it is less tenable for these schools and their peers to maintain their dominance, particularly as bigger schools unleash massive budget disbursements to grow the programs and ensure high school stars of all academic and socioeconomic persuasions can attend. Call it the migration of the “preppier” sports. (1)
Now, the evidence that we may be seeing such transformations, in varying stages, at this very moment:
Colleges that sit on lakes in the Northeast are no longer the undisputed hegemons of collegiate crew. While some large state schools have had powerful programs for decades, more and more from coast to coast — from Virginia to Wisconsin, Washington and Berkeley — have grabbed a piece of the action as the sport spreads, and while H/Y/P boats still win national championships every year, it is not safe to assume every race will go to the Ivy League. Bigger schools with different priorities have made sure of that, even given the restrictive barrier to entry — you need a body of water to compete.
Similarly, when men’s collegiate squash switched to the international version of the game from the American one, Trinity College unseated Harvard and Princeton as the champion of the sport, having recruited more international stars. While Trinity is undoubtedly a moneyed Northeastern school (and H/Y/P are still pretty damn good), Stanford has also gotten into the action from across the country on the women’s side, and programs like StreetSquash have begun spreading the sport further into cities. Surely, if squash courts begin popping up in more metropolitan and rural settings, the shift could begin to set in more clearly before long.
And for a particularly illustrative example of the beginning of a serious change, we can look to 2009. Then, lacrosse coaching titan Bill Tierney announced he was leaving his comfortable perch at Old Nassau for the lacrosse-hostile peaks of the Rockies, where he would take the reigns of the University of Denver’s fledgling team and try to grow the sport in the West. Within two years, Denver was in the national semifinals and Michigan — a big-money athletics school in a far-from-traditional lacrosse market — announced the formation of its own varsity team. Princeton, meanwhile, suffered a serious “off” year in 2011 (finishing 4-8), not necessarily spelling doom for the program but still making the contrast even starker. As Tierney explained to me last year before the Pioneers’ remarkable season, schools like Denver have the ability to accept a wider range of recruits than programs like Princeton. When a sport becomes more popular, better and better players will come from all over — and will not all be academically compatible with Ivy League schools, which are thus left behind.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that an athletic program like Princeton’s could decide to double down and pull out all the stops to keep crew, squash or lacrosse power in the Northeast. But that could mean seriously de-emphasizing programs in which Tiger teams can win league championships but don’t tend to compete nationally (baseball? hockey? soccer?), and I find that policy turn highly unlikely.
So when my class returns for its 25th reunion, I am confident that Princeton’s streak of consecutive years holding at least one national championship (40 and counting, with a hell of a lot of squash and crew) will still be intact. But the wins themselves will likely come from someplace new.
Gabriel Debenedetti is a senior politics major from Princeton, N.J. He is a former sports editor and editor-in-chief of the ‘Prince.’
(1) This doesn’t happen to all sports, of course. Some sports just never started their American growth at New England boarding schools, and will never have an Ivy League-dominated era (the hullabaloo surrounding the rare March Madness run of an Ancient Eight team is evidence of that). But the fact remains that if a sport grows up in an Ivy-centric setting, chances are it won’t stay there.