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 semesterthree, 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 Henleygetting
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 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
intereststhe crew members who take my classes always seem
to major in subjects like philosophy, political science, literature,
or math and scienceand 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 gamesDartmouth was all male then, and
football weekends were among other things an occasion to date
girls from women's colleges like Wellesley and Smithand
I supported the team as staunchly as anyone else in the student
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 speaka 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
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,
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 levelthe
kind of sports that today survive only in the Ivy League, the
Patriot League, and Division III schoolshave 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 usthe crowd from Rutgers, the
Cornell families and friends, the large group of Princeton undergraduatesfelt
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, hoarselywe'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."
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,