Former and current members of Princeton’s sprint football team have joined together in an effort to oppose President Christopher L. Eisgruber '83’s decision to discontinue the sprint football program on the grounds that the verdict was not representative of the report provided by the evaluation committee.
According to the University’s press release, the committee – consisting of University administrators, athletic staff, athletic medical directors and sprint football alumni – concluded, after a six-month-long review, to end the program. The release cited “unacceptably high risk of injury" as a main reason behind the decision.
However, Joseph Salerno ’84 — a former sprint football player and an executive board member on the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football who participated in the committee — said that the press release is not an accurate reflection of the committee’s findings, particularly on the point of injury risks.
Referring to Eisgruber’s explanation that he is canceling the program on grounds of “substantial risk of very serious injuries,” Salerno called the data, which the administration decided against releasing publicly, “misleading.”
According to Salerno, who described the injury data as “troubling and inconsistent,” the report includes consistent per-season injury totals for other sports, but not for sprint football. Many per-season totals for sprint football were not reported, preventing the reader from seeing sprint’s relatively modest injury totals and from assessing statistical consistency, he said.
Additionally, certain injury data has “inexplicably” been excluded from the rate calculation.
Consequently, injury rates for sprint football were established based on data for a fewer seasons than most of the other sports in the report.
“Having seen the injury data, I can say that I don’t find it at all conclusive that the sport is unsafe to play, and I can also say that other sports had more total injuries and other sports had higher injury rates,” Salerno said. “So I can’t see how it would be fair to come to the conclusion that sprint is unsafe to play given those other facts.”
To Salerno, not only do these discrepancies make the current data unreliable, but a more comprehensive analysis of the data may also lead to a different conclusion about the nature of sprint football, he said.
Kees Thompson ‘13, former sprint football captain and Vice President of Events for the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football, further attributed the alarm over allegedly high injury rates for sprint football in certain years as a testament to the priority placed on safety by sprint football head coach Sean Morey.
As an NFL player, Morey was a member of the Executive Committee of the NFL Players Association where, according to GoPrincetonTigers.com, he “devoted his energy towards advocating for comprehensive clinical research efforts intended to understand, quantify and treat pressing healthcare issues associated with the cumulative and compounding effect of repetitive and recurrent brain trauma.”
John Wolfe '14, a former captain of the sprint football team, echoed Salerno’s sentiments by questioning the University’s decision not to release the data.
“If the sport is so unsafe that these players have been in an unsafe environment for the last 18 years, then don’t the players have a right to access the injury data for their own personal health?” he asked.
Sprint football alumni have thus far mutually agreed with Mollie Marcoux, director of athletics, and University administrators not to publicize either the injury data or the report, indicating their commitment to the committee to respect that confidentiality.
Nonetheless, Eisgruber noted in an emailed statement that “the injury statistics for sprint football are deeply disturbing.”
But statistics alone tell only part of the story, he said.
“I received expert medical advice attesting to the risk of serious injury to our players, and the team's coaching staff has more than once forfeited games when it would be unsafe to play. No other Princeton team is in a comparable position,” he said.
Though the press release stated that the decision was made in part by the committee, Mollie Marcoux '91, director of athletics, acknowledged that the committee itself was not charged with making a specific recommendation.
Rather, the committee was set up to provide information on the state of sprint football and offer up different options to support the program to University Executive Vice President Treby Williams '84, who would in turn make a recommendation to Eisgruber, she said.
Thompson stated that the committee was originally convened by Williams.
Thompson mentioned that though Williams attended several meetings, Eisgruber was not present at any of the committee sessions.
Williams declined to comment.
The evaluation committee was just one portion of the overall review, Marcoux said.
“The President also had more conversations and asked more questions and did his own homework from there,” Marcoux said.
Chad Cowden '17, current captain and starting quarterback of the team, added that after the report was submitted to Eisgruber to make his final suggestion, the team received an email from Marcoux in January stating that in the current state it was in, the team could not continue. The sport needed either help from the administration or it would be terminated.
Cowden said that he and a few other players subsequently discussed with Marcoux what they thought about the program, what the program needed, and their perspectives on the issue.
However, Cowden did admit besides the email and conversation with Marcoux, his and the team’s knowledge of the committee’s review was very limited. Furthermore, he did not know that the team’s termination was a realistic probability.
Salerno said that Sprint football alumni were also baffled by Eisgruber’s refusal to add more recruiting spots for the sprint football team as an alternative to shutting down the program entirely. The decision leads to greater questions about the University’s attitude towards athletics as a whole, Salerno said.
Thompson said that the University differs from other Ivy League schools in that it self-caps at a lower number of recruited athletes than the Ivy League maximum.
Arthur Chew '95, former captain of sprint football,member of Friends of Princeton Sprint Football for 15 years and the President of Save Princeton Sprint Football, a newly founded organization dedicated to fight the decision, said that the University’s internal policy of limiting recruiting spots plays a huge role in the demise of the sport.
According to Chew, former director of athletics Gary Walters '67 decided in the late 1990s to gradually remove all recruiting spots from sprint football.
In 1996, six recruiting spots were allocated to sprint football. The number of recruits was decreased to two spots from 1997 to 1999. In 2000, recruitment was entirely eliminated.
Walters did not respond to request for comment.
Thompson argued that this lack of recruiting spots is a primary reason for the team’s struggles in the past two decades.
Princeton sprint football’s 106-game losing streak dates back to 1999.
According to Cowden, the majority of their recruitment effort rests in attempting to persuade students present at the Activities Fair to play football. He added that the team is “full of a lot of guys who are new to football.”
Sprint football is the only varsity sport with a table present at the Activities Fair.
“If the Athletic Department went back to the drawing board on all of its spots for all of its teams, I think it would be hard to argue that sprint – or any varsity team – deserves zero, while other sports deserve dozens,” Thompson said.
At an all-alumni gathering in Baltimore, Md., last Thursday, Chew spoke with Eisgruber about his decision to discontinue sprint football during a question and answer session.
According to Chew, Eisgruber defended his refusal to add more recruiting spots for athletes despite the University’s decision to expand the undergraduate student body by 125 students per class. Eisgruber also emphasized the need for more space for students who are very qualified academically, Chew said.
“I took this comment as offensive, as did others in the crowd, that the recruited athletes did not belong at Princeton and we were taking spots away from qualified students,” Chew explained.
To Salerno, Eisgruber’s decision demonstrates that the crux of the matter should not be about debating injury data, or a lack of competitiveness.
Instead, he believes that “the real issue is how we value athletes versus non-athletes on campus.”
Salerno and his fellow alumni are hoping that their efforts have resonated with all Princeton varsity athletic alumni, who can identify with the merits and value of the 82-year old sprint tradition.
Chew added that Save Princeton Sprint Football will be a large presence at upcoming Reunions and will work to garner further support from alumni, especially varsity athletic alumni.
“We thought [the administration] was going to help us as much as they could,” Cowden said. “I thought the ending [of sprint football] would be a last resort sort of thing like, ‘Oh, really nothing worked out, sorry.’ We didn’t really think [the discontinuation] was going to be the result of the report.”
The Friends of Princeton Sprint Football and the Save Princeton Sprint Football group have started a petition on Change.org addressed to Eisgruber and Marcoux to request that Eisgruber reconsider his decision.The fact that the University waited 20 years before saying there are too few experienced players to play sprint football speaks for itself, Salerno said.