Swarthmore College’s football team has won just five games in five years. At one point, it had the nation’s longest losing streak, and regularly lost by more than five touchdowns.
But win or lose — and clearly it’s been more of the latter — Swarthmore students and alumni were stunned and disappointed by Saturday’s decision by the college board to drop football.
“I don’t like losing. But you learn from sports. You learn determination. You learn commitment. And yes, you learn how to lose,” said junior Jon Bartner, a linebacker on the 55-member squad and one of about 100 students at a protest Tuesday.
One of the Oldest Football Teams
Swarthmore, which competed in the NCAA’s small-college Division III, had the nation’s 15th-oldest college football program, going back to 1879.
The college, founded in 1864 by pacifist Quakers, is far better known for its academics. The $34,000-a-year school in suburban Philadelphia is ranked second in the nation among liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report.
Only the golf team won a championship in 2000. In 1999, the football team ended what at the time was the nation’s longest losing streak at 28 games.
Swarthmore counts among its alumni author James Michener, former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and three Nobel laureates.
Another alumnus is Neil Austrian, former president of the National Football League. Austrian is threatening to quit the college’s board after 22 years, including eight as chairman, unless football is reinstated.
“Football is one of the few sports that can galvanize the whole community,” he said. “That’s worth something.”
The decision came after the end of the football season, during which the team went 4-5, a big improvement from its winless season three years ago. Swarthmore said it may agree to one more season in 2001 just to allow current players to finish out their careers.
Swarthmore is the latest of a string of schools that have dropped football in the past decade, including Boston University, though the NCAA said a record number of schools have recognized football programs.
Swarthmore’s decision wasn’t due to lack of funding, or the burdens of complying with federal gender-equity law, or apathy. In fact, attendance had improved from an average of about 750 fans at games in 1999 to about 1,000 this season.
Instead, the 1,400-student school said it is cutting football because it does not want to recruit so many athletes.
“People get an edge in the admissions process if they are incredible musicians or artists or maybe for community service,” college spokesman Tom Krattenmaker said. “It’s basic math. If you eliminate football, you suddenly have a lot more spaces for everything else.”
Wrestling Also Eliminated
For the past three years, Swarthmore recruited about 20 football players annually — about one in 10 male freshmen and nearly half the 45 students recruited annually for all sports.
“The price of making football work was just too great,” Krattenmaker said.
The school also will eliminate wrestling after this winter and stop supporting women’s badminton, though officials admit few players were ever recruited for badminton anyway.
Swarthmore’s biggest philanthropist enthusiastically supported the decision.
“I’m perfectly willing to trade off the football program for the other major sports that can compete with self respect,” said graduate and board chairman emeritus Eugene Lang, founder of the I Have a Dream Foundation.
But supporters seemed to be in the minority this week. More than 400 students shouted down administrators during a meeting in the fieldhouse Sunday. All but one of the students who voiced support for the decision in a story in the school newspaper refused to give their names.
“There’s no reason a small, academically competitive school can’t be good at football too, unless that’s what the administration wants,” said running back Kenny Clark, a sophomore who said he is considering transferring.