Skip to main content

Football at Grinnell

I watch our football team, and I worry. I don’t worry that we lose, since we don’t just play football to win. I worry because we have so few players that there aren’t backups that allow players to take a break [1]. Because they can’t rest, the players are more likely to get hurt. And, because there aren’t enough backups, for minor injuries, they are likely to keep playing. That doesn’t seem to be good for the players, or for the team.

I find myself asking myself a question that I know others are asking: Should Grinnell eliminate football?

That’s a hard question to ask. Why? All three of my sons played football [2]. I count many football players among my list of students I am thrilled to have at Grinnell. I know that football has many benefits. It helps people learn to work as a team, and even to make sacrifices for others. It gives aggressive young men a (relatively) healthy way to get out aggressions. At some institutions, it helps build a broader sense of community.

Grinnell also has a long and hallowed football history. We played either the first or second intercollegiate football game west of the Mississippi [3]. We beat the University of Iowa in that game, and in the next two games we played against them. We’ve beaten such powerhouses as Nebraska.

That was a long time ago. For most of this century and last, Grinnell has been a mediocre team. That’s okay. We don’t have football to win. We have football to give people the opportunity to compete and to learn to work as a team. Maybe we even have football to attract some students to Grinnell.

But we need to consider the balance. The team is small, and that creates problems. Will the team ever get larger? That’s hard to tell. There aren’t a lot of students who can get in to Grinnell who also want to play football [5]. I expect that it will get even harder as time goes on. I’ve watched the Grinnell High School team drop in size by about 50% in the past seven years, and their opponents seem to be seeing similar drops. As the evidence of the damage players get from playing grows, not just concussions and their effects, but also long-term injuries to joints, I think we’ll see fewer and fewer students play, at every level. And that decrease is likely to hit places like Grinnell especially hard.

My views on football may colored by my own alma matter, The University of Chicago. Chicago was also a powerhouse. In the early days, the Maroons were twice national champions and seven-times Big Ten champions [7]. They, not the Bears, were the true Monsters of the Midway [8]. Chicago had the first winner of the Heisman trophy [9]. In Amos Alonzo Stagg, they had one of the best and most creative coaches in the nation. And yet, in 1939 or so, President Hutchins eliminated football.

Hutchins’ reasons for eliminating football are not those we are considering now. At the time, Chicago had a top-rate graduate program, but a fairly typical party oriented undergraduate culture. I believe the Trustees brought Hutchins in with a charge to either make the undergraduate education match the graduate education, or to eliminate The College. Eliminating football was one of the steps in helping make Chicago a top-rate undergraduate institution.

If Hutchins’ reasons were different, why am I bringing up Chicago at all, other than my pride in the institution? Well, Chicago football didn’t stay gone forever [10]. Chicago now has a D3 team, and they may even be playing Grinnell in the near future. As we consider whether or not to retain football at Grinnell, we should examine the reasons that football returned to Chicago [11].

What happens if we eliminate football? Well, I think Title IX specifies that we need equity in men’s sports and women’s sports. Eliminating football might then mean that we need to eliminate a women’s team. But that doesn’t seem to be a good idea; sports play an important role in building community, building wellness, and even attracting students.

So, we need a men’s sport that would replace football. Our men’s (well, coed) water polo club is doing really well, and will be at nationals again this year. We could make that a team sport. We could consider rugby. We’re in Iowa, so we might think about wrestling. We are in the upper midwest, so we might think about hockey. Or, since almost every other sport has a men’s team and a women’s team, we might think about men’s volleyball.

The problem? The Midwest conference doesn’t have water polo, or wrestling, or hockey, or men’s volleyball. However, there is a regional water polo league, and Monmouth made the switch from club to team sports there. The Iowa conference has wrestling. There’s a Northern Collegiate Hockey Association, which includes both Lake Forest and Lawrence. There’s a Midwest Collegiate Volleyball League. So, whatever other sport we choose (assuming we decide to eliminate football), there’s probably a place for us.

Do I think we should eliminate football? I don’t know. Fortunately, that’s not my call. Do I think we need a campus-wide discussion about whether we should eliminate football? Definitely.

[1] For example, I believe we started the season with only two healthy wide receivers. And we played our most recent game with a quarterback who had only been on the team for two weeks, and who had last played QB in middle school.

[2] Although only one for GC.

[3] Lore has it that Grinnell played the first game west of the Mississippi. See, for example, this article from the Associated Press, available from the LA Times, which describes a game played in November, 1889. However, a history of San Diego State University suggests that their first game was in May, 1889 [4]. Wikipedia notes that there was an intercollegiate game in April, 1885, in Colorado. That seems to be with the Colorado College Athletic Association, which may or may not count as a college team. There was also an intercollegiate competition in Minnesota in 1882, but that was in St. Paul, so it was just east of the Mississippi.

[4] See page 124 of the book, which is page 136 of the PDF.

[5] I know our peer institutions seem to make some admissions exceptions for football players. When eldest son interviewed at one, they warned him that he needed an ACT score of at least 23. (For Grinnell, the average ACT score is 31 or 32, and the 25th percentile score is 30 [6]. And don’t worry; the 23 is not an issue, since eldest is above 75th percentile for Grinnell and scored much higher than 23 when he took the ACT in 7th grade.) When middle son interviewed at another peer, they told him that all football players start on academic probation because they assume they will need the extra support. Grinnell assumes that our players will be the same caliber as all other students.


[7] Eldest son says that this footnote was incorrect. It has now been elided.

[8] In those early years, they also significantly out-drew the Bears.

[9] Although, in that year, it was not yet called the Heisman.

[10] The return of football to UofC was the subject of a great early Second City sketch.

[11] Sorry, I don’t know why football returned. I spent a little while looking for reasons, but didn’t find anything. Fortunately, we have reference librarians.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-18.