Epilogue: A View from the Banks

 

In the midst of writing Confessions of a Spoilsport, I broke off to go to a Rutgers athletics event. Our lightweight crew was rowing that day against Princeton and Cornell for the Platt Cup. The event takes place at Lake Carnegie, about a mile from our house. I almost always make it out to the Platt Cup race, but since I had two students in the lightweight varsity boat that semester—three, actually, but one of them, Jacob Goodman, was at Oxford this year on study abroad, where he rowed for Oxford in the annual race against Cambridge at Henley—getting out to cheer them on seemed especially important.


I expected the worst. I knew we had a good boat that spring, but Princeton and Cornell were both ranked well ahead of Rutgers in the latest collegiate rowing poll, and both are perennially strong programs.

You have your choice about watching the Platt Cup race at Lake Carnegie. You can either go down to one of the bridges by the Princeton boathouse and watch the start, following the boats with your binoculars to the finish line about a mile away. Or you can park by the finish, on a wide sandy stretch by the water that has a small set of spectator stands and a loudspeaker for an announcer in the race boat who calls the early part of the race.


The little park by the finish line was crowded, mostly with family and friends of the rowers. There were kids and dogs and older people sitting in lawn chairs with their binoculars at the ready. Most of the spectators wore some sign of their school affiliation. It's always a small matter of embarrassment to me that Rutgers, with twenty-eight thousand students just twelve miles away, is usually outnumbered by spectators from the other schools.


I'm a special fan of the lightweight crew because it's one of the only purely amateur athletics programs at Rutgers. The heavyweight crew coach is allowed to give some scholarships and half-scholarships, meaning that at least some of his rowers are at Rutgers on just the same terms as Greg Schiano's football players or Vivian Stringer's basketball players. They've been scouted, recruited, and rewarded with scholarship money.

 

The lightweights, on the other hand, are kids who have gone out for crew in the same spirit as their friends go out for theater or orchestra or the Rutgers Review. They put in a huge number of hours practicing and getting in shape for competition, they balance athletics with genuine intellectual interests—the crew members who take my classes always seem to major in subjects like philosophy, political science, literature, or math and science—and they stay totally outside the miasma of commercialism and cheap hype that surrounds sports like basketball and football, whose players have no real connection to the university. I admire them tremendously.


Thinking about all this out at Lake Carnegie, I was reminded of something that I forget from time to time, one of the most underdiscussed topics in the area of college sports. When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, we had two undefeated football seasons and three Ivy League championships in my four years. I went to a lot of games—Dartmouth was all male then, and football weekends were among other things an occasion to date girls from women's colleges like Wellesley and Smith—and I supported the team as staunchly as anyone else in the student body.


But here's the thing. When you were watching an Ivy football game in the 1960s, there was always what I now think of as an organic relation between the players down on the field and the students in the stands. They were us, so to speak—a bit bigger and more coordinated, maybe, and possessing certain physical skills we didn't have, but other than that just kids who lived down the hall from us in the dorm, or who sat next to us in a history seminar, or who you'd run into in the library stacks when you had a paper due for the same class.


It's true that those teams didn't play very good football. I remember that, during one of the two seasons when Dartmouth went undefeated, we got a little cocky about how well the team was doing. That season had come down to a final game against Princeton, also undefeated that year, and Princeton had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Their captain made the fatal mistake of looking past Dartmouth to football immortality. Unforgivably, he remarked to the SI reporter that, because the Ivy League doesn't allow postseason competition in football, the Princeton team would "never really know how good they were."


This did not sit well with the Dartmouth football players, or with the undergraduates. Although finals were coming up and few could really spare the time, a bunch of us took the train down to Princeton to see the final game. The father of one of our classmates, a Dartmouth alumnus, had used his seniority to buy a block of tickets, and we sat as a group in the midst of a crowd of older alumni. Palmer Stadium, the grand old structure that has since been demolished and replaced by a smaller modern stadium, was packed.


Dartmouth defeated Princeton that day, a very satisfying victory over an opponent who had been unwary enough to display a bit of hubris on the eve of the final contest. But I've never forgotten the moment at which, when the game was winding down and it was clear that Dartmouth was going to win, an alum sitting behind us, dressed in fall tweeds, gray-haired and distinguished looking, leaned forward and said, gently, "It's all right to celebrate, fellows. But don't carry it too far. You do realize, don't you, that a good Texas high school team could beat either of these teams by two touchdowns?"


As it happened, never having been very far out of New England, I didn't realize that. I do now. Still, the point seems to me unimportant in any larger scheme of things. My tendency is to ask precisely why college football shouldn't be played on an amateur, even sometimes on an outright amateurish, level. If it's real, after all, the teams are made up of college kids, young men who want to go on to do other things in their lives than play football.


The contrast between our situation then and that of undergraduates at institutions like Nebraska and Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia Tech today couldn't be more dramatic. At those schools, the students who go to the stadium, or who sit in the plastic seats in the basketball arena, have no more authentic relationship to the players on the floor than people who buy tickets to see the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Memphis Grizzlies do to the players on those teams.


In fact, the professional franchise has become, in the last twenty years, more and more the model for the relation between Division IA teams and the institutions that sponsor them. It's not an accident that the students who rioted at Ohio State to "celebrate" a football victory, or the University of Connecticut undergraduates who set fires and overturned cars to glorify a basketball championship, were imitating similar behavior on the part of Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots fans in recent years.


That's why there's no sound reason for universities to sponsor basketball or football franchises, or to go through the charade of trying to pass off semiprofessional players as college students. People unconnected to a university who want to see top-quality football have a huge number of professional franchises to choose from. It's no trouble at all, for instance, for anyone who lives in the immediate vicinity of Rutgers to get tickets for a New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, or New York Jets game. There's no reason why they should treat Rutgers as a venue designed to provide them with weekend entertainment.


By the same token, people who actually went to Rutgers, or parents who have children at the school, like the students themselves, would get far more pleasure out of watching teams made up of actual Rutgers students than by attending games played by recruited athletes with whom they have no real connection. One of the hardest things to get across to people in the TV age is that alumni and students who go to games played at the genuinely collegiate level—the kind of sports that today survive only in the Ivy League, the Patriot League, and Division III schools—have more fun than the undergraduates who go out to set fires or break shop windows or overturn automobiles after games in places like Columbus, Ohio or Storrs, Connecticut.


I was thinking about all this when Mrs D and I were there on the shore of Lake Carnegie, waiting for the lightweight race to start. The atmosphere was very much like that I remembered from my own college football games. The people around us, classmates of the rowers, mothers and fathers and brothers and little sisters, were all there because they had a real connection to the young men in the boats down at the other end of the course. Only a couple of weeks before, as you've heard, there had been a basketball game at which Rutgers students had screamed obscenities at the opposing team, fought in the stands with fans from another school, and gotten so drunk that they had to be carried out of the arena. There were also fights on the NJ Transit trains bringing students back to school from the arena.


It was impossible to imagine any of that going on there on shores of Lake Carnegie. All of us—the crowd from Rutgers, the Cornell families and friends, the large group of Princeton undergraduates—felt as though we shared something important even while we were there to root against one anothers' boats. It was real college sports, competition undertaken for the right reasons by people, both athletes and spectators, who realized that athletics is nothing unless you do it for love of the sport.


The race was thrilling. Cornell pulled out to an early lead. Rutgers and Princeton stayed even for what seemed like a very long time, in what looked to be shaping up as a two-boat race for second. Then Princeton began to pull away, moving up a little on Cornell, leaving the Rutgers boat behind by one or two seats. Knowing that both Cornell and Princeton were ranked ahead of us, I resigned myself to hoping for a decent third. I kept my binoculars on the Rutgers boat, trying to get some sense of how they'd shape up in later races this year, and what sort of boat we might have next year.


The Rutgers rowers, though, had something different in mind. About four hundred yards from the finish, they made a move that was almost intimidating in its sense of steady, inexorable purpose. You could tell immediately that this wasn't some kind of last-minute spurt, meant to save a little honor in a race that was already ignominiously lost. They meant to move through Princeton, and to give Cornell a race for its money.


By now, I had my eyes on the Princeton cox, wondering if he understood what was happening. He did. He sat bolt upright, almost as if someone had hit him from shore with a pellet gun, and then leaned forward and started frantically to raise the cadence. To their immense credit, the Princeton rowers responded, and for a tense hundred yards or so it was once again a two-boat race for second. Then Princeton cracked. Rutgers started to move ahead by inches, holding the beat as steadily as when they'd started the move. Up ahead, the Cornell cox was trying to tell his rowers, who at this point thought they had already won the race, that Rutgers was coming on.


As it turned out, Rutgers had come on too late. They lost more because they'd run out of water than because their magnificent move in the end had lost any power or momentum. A Rutgers mom turned to me and said, hoarsely—we'd all been shouting our lungs out during this last few minutes—"If the course had been 150 yards longer, we'd have taken the race."

"We forget, most of the time, how magnificent college athletics can be." WCD with students and members of the Rutgers lightweight crew after a Platt Cup race.


I don't know if that's right. Cornell also rowed a splendid race, and Princeton demands all credit for having hung in so bravely against the doom-like inevitability of that last Rutgers sprint, but I do know that to all of us in the Rutgers crowd it felt like a victory.


We forget, most of the time, how magnificent college athletics can be. In an age of sleaze and fraud and commercialization, it's hard to remember what sports are like when the athletes are students who represent the college they compete for. Still, it seems to me that our little group of spectators by the shores of Lake Carnegie was having a more genuine experience of college sports than they could have gotten from a thousand Tostitos Corn Chips Fiesta Bowls or "March Madness" TV spectacles. The rioting students who get drunk and set fires and overturn automobiles after a college sports victory seemed a million miles away, just where one would want them to be, and ideally to stay, forever.