My grandfather, who had a noticeably aristocratic turn of mind, once said to me: "When you get to college, boy, don't let them talk you into playing football. In the first place, it's dangerous. In the second place, it's time-consuming. And in the third place, it will get you involved with all the wrong sort of people."
The remark, though crotchety and old-fashioned, always struck me as amusing, and until recently I never took his admonitions very seriously or gave them much thought at all. But a few weeks ago I happened to overhear a well-brushed covey of Smith girls discussing whether they would or would not accept an invitation to attend the Penn-Dartmouth football game, which, as everybody knows—or I think everybody knows—was played in Philadelphia this year.
"I really think we ought to go," said one girl to the others. "Believe it or not, Penn's parties have come up quite a bit lately."
"Penn itself has come up," another agreed. "But, still, I don't know. It seems a terrible risk to take—to go all that way and perhaps be bored."
November 9, 1959
"Believe me," the first girl said, "Penn has come way, way up."
Fascinated, I sauntered toward them. In the nonchalant manner I used to employ in my own college days to imply that I, all along, had somehow been a part of the conversation, I said, "By the way—just what do you mean by up?"
"Well," said the first girl, "I mean—well, up. Up in—" she groped for the right word—"up in importance, I guess. Up in whether you'll have a good time when you get there."
"You mean up socially?" I suggested.
"Well, sort of."
"Who else is up?" I asked.
"Well," she said, thinking. "Brown has come up quite a bit. Brown used to be perfectly dreadful."
"Partywise?" I asked.
"Everythingwise," she said. "Boorwise. Borewise. You-name-it-wise. But lately Brown has gotten, well—really rather nice. Some people think Trinity has come up, too," she said, "but not me. I see no changes in Trinity. They still run up and down the stairs at Trinity parties, yelling and banging the walls with their fists as they go. And if you want to know a place that's gone way down, as far as everybody is concerned, it's Cornell. Cornell used to be considered fun, but now, honestly, Cornell is too ghastly for words."
The most up college in the East in the Smith girls' opinion—or, rather, the college that was so secure in its upness that movement up or down seemed not even worth considering—was Yale. Princeton was a close second, Williams a close third, Harvard a poor fourth. ("I'd almost put MIT ahead of Harvard," said one girl.) They added, "Oh, yes, and of course there's Amherst," and they spoke of it with a disdain that I gathered sprang from the fact that Amherst—seven miles from Northampton—was so close as to be indistinguishable from Smith on weekends.
During the football season it was the relative upness of the colleges whose teams were playing that counted where the girls were concerned—not the game. "I really don't understand football anyway," one girl said. "The only reason I go is—well, it's fun to see people you know in the stadium, and you can find out who's going to which parties afterward. I never pay any attention to the game. If somebody next to me yells or cheers, I say, 'Goodness me, what happened?' The only moving, really moving, part of the game is when somebody gets hurt and has to be carried off the field. Then I think: What a shame, what a waste, what a foolish game! All through his life that boy will have a broken nose or false front teeth. Oh, I suppose it would be different if any of the players were anyone I knew. But almost always they're boys I've never met."
This episode started me on a chain of thought, the links of which I will now describe. The idea that our most, august institutions of higher education are in a condition of perpetual social flux, subtly moving into a state of grace and out again, was new to me. But it didn't take me long to realize that whether a college is Up or Down depends entirely on where you're standing and whom you ask. From the campus of Smith, Yale may be Up, but it is not necessarily so from the campus of Radcliffe. Dartmouth may be out of fashion at Bennett Junior College, but it is not at Colby Junior College. To me the more interesting thought was that the college football weekend—the very symbol of college social life—no longer seemed to revolve around the quality of the football team, the prowess of some individual players, the excitement of seeing ancient rivalries brought to the test again under bright autumn skies or even the slightest degree of interest in the game itself. Was college football on the way Down, I wondered? If so, what sports were Up, in its place? I thought of the Smith girl's remark about enjoying football games more if "anyone she knew" were on the team. I thought of Grandfather. Had the social standing of football players dropped to such a point that no one spoke to them any more? Did the sport a man played determine his position in the college community? Was selecting a sport as delicately chancy a business as selecting a fraternity? Could water polo be construed as a gaffe, like using the wrong fork?
With these questions tugging at my curiosity, I began what I consider to be an extensive and thorough exploration of the athletic scene at eastern colleges. I have emerged from this research unbruised, and with what I think are some enlightening conclusions.
I learned, for one thing, that on most college campuses there are three distinct categories of male students. There are the Up guys, the Down guys and a third group popularly known as the straight arrows. An Up guy is a guy who, with a trick of manner—a kind of clear, blasé self-assurance—is able to convince other guys that whatever thing he is doing is the most worthwhile and engaging thing, while the thing that they (the other guys) are doing is probably kind of silly, if not actually stupid. Down guys are simply guys who do not possess this trick of manner. Nobody blames Down guys. (Down guys can't help it if nature, or some other inscrutable force, failed to endow them with the special luxuriance of mind and spirit that Up guys seem to have.) Down guys may be good guys, but Up guys are better guys. The straight arrows, as their name implies, are in the middle. They are the fence sitters, the controversy straddlers. Straight arrows play it safe. They are on everybody's side. As tides in campus affairs turn, so do they, but not enough to endanger their center-of-the-road position. (If straight arrows had any strength of character everybody would detest them; since they haven't any, everybody tolerates them good-naturedly.) There are always more Down guys than Up guys. But the fact that Up guys are Up (plus the fact that a substantial number of straight arrows swim in the Up guys' wake) gives them stature and influence. They are the thought-leaders.
Just as there are Up guys and Down guys, so are there Up sports and Down sports. The system is not as simple as the one Nancy Mitford devised, in which people and things were sorted into two bins, Upper Class and non-Upper Class or—as she abbreviated them—U and non-U. The dividing line that I have discovered is somewhat similar, but what exists on either side of it is quite different. Up sports and Down sports are not static categories, not as easily separable as Up guys and Down guys. Instead, they are like two department store escalators moving in opposite directions, side by side. There are degrees, in other words. If you picture a number of college sports spread out like passengers on the moving stairs, you can see that the result is a hierarchy or, strictly speaking, a pair of hierarchies—one ascending, the other descending.
Also, unlike Miss Mitford's categories, the various social levels of college sports have no relation to social upness and downness that may exist in the world outside. Wealth and lineage, that is, are not, to the youth on college campuses, the sort of considerations that they may become in later life at Palm Beach. A whole infield full of Biddies and Rockefellers would not make baseball an Up sport at Princeton. The requirements are more democratic nowadays than they were in my grandfather's time, but they are also more complicated.
Before proceeding further, I ought to explain that in my survey I limited myself to what I considered to be the 20 most commonly played college sports. No sport that does not have an official or semiofficial status on a majority of eastern college campuses is included. Though there are distinct social gradations between such extracollegiate sports as lawn bowls, court tennis, sky-diving, roller skating, mountaineering, cricket, cycling, chess, pigsticking, yachting, fox hunting, beagling, bowling and falconry, I have omitted any discussion of these because I considered them too special, too apt to cloud the general picture.
It is also important to remember that positions on the Up and Down scale keep changing. One reason for this is that Up guys and Down guys do not make Up sports and Down sports. It is more commonly the sport that makes the man, though it can work both ways. For instance, a sport that is played only by Up guys is apt to be an Up sport, but notice that I am careful to say "apt to be." Some sports played only by Down guys can also be Up sports. Some sports will always be Up sports, no matter who plays them. Their positions are secured by time and tradition, e.g., tennis. There is another factor, too, that affects the rank of certain sports: girls. If I may refine my metaphor a bit, then, the two escalators are like department store escalators on Saturday afternoon when they are crowded with unruly children. Some of the children are charging up the down escalator. Others try to race down the up one. The effect is chaotic, and so it is with college sports. Though some sports have shown great stability in recent years, others have fluctuated wildly.
Perhaps it is easier to understand what makes a sport Up when you understand what makes a sport Down: A sport can be Down for any one of three reasons:
1) Any sport that is Up as a high school sport is Down as a college sport, e.g., basketball.
2) Any sport that is elaborate, that requires paraphernalia, special equipment or money, is a Down sport. (Polo, the most Up of adult sports from Newport to Pebble Beach, enjoys a lowly position at colleges for this reason. "Polo is strictly for social climbers," observes a Williams man. Social climbing is a Down sport.)
3) Finally, any sport is a Down sport if it is inordinately popular with a large section of the American public, the kind of sport that attracts a following of beer-drinking, hot-dog-munching fans, that consumes quantities of newspaper space and television time. Baseball, the "national pastime," is in the cellar spot on most campuses for this reason.
An Up sport is a clean sport, a gentlemanly sport but, more than anything else, it must be a casual sport. It must not take itself too seriously. (Sports car racing, if that were a college sport, would be a Down sport.) Generally speaking, any sport at which the onlookers are called spectators is an Up sport, and any sport at which the onlookers show their approval by clapping, rather than cheering, is an Up sport. Enthusiasm, excess zeal—called "gung ho"—is out of fashion these days. Sports where the contest is called a match rather than a game or meet are likely to be Up sports. Sports where it isn't the score or who wins or loses but how you play the game that counts are Up sports. Any sport that attracts a small but fiercely loyal band of devotees or aficionados who can converse in that sport's private language and which has built up around it, like atonal music, not only its own vocabulary but its own aura of mystery, is an Up sport. Jai alai, if it were a college sport, would be an Up sport. The high position of fencing on the Up list is explained by this. Finally, any sport that was an Up sport as a prep school sport (not to be confused with a high school sport) is likely to be an Up sport as a college sport, too, e.g., hockey and soccer. This is because the line that divides eastern prep schools and eastern colleges is in so many places so fine, so thin.
Learning to negotiate one's way among the Ups and Downs requires some fancy footwork. It is almost a game in itself. As in a sport, knowing the rules is not enough. The student who wishes to be on top of the situation can only get there with practice. To give you an idea of how important it is to know the ropes, I would like to cite now a couple of case histories. To make things easier and, at the same time, to preserve the anonymity of the men involved, I shall call these the cases of Arthur A. and Bradley B.
Arthur A. came to College X as a freshman in the fall of 1958. "I considered myself a typical, all-round American college boy," Arthur says, "in A-l physical condition except for the glasses which I only need to wear while reading. At high school I was a pretty good athlete. I was too light for football, but I was fast, so when I got to college I decided to go out for cross-country." At first, Arthur reports, all seemed well. Then, as weeks passed, he began to notice what he describes as "a kind of gradual numbness" on the part of his friends and fellow students "every time the word cross-country came into the conversation. I'd mention what we did at practice that day, and they'd all start clearing their throats. I didn't know what was wrong."
One night, describing the latest freshman cross-country meet to a Saturday night date from a neighboring girls' school, Arthur observed another curious thing. After a few moments of seemingly intense interest his date suddenly yawned; then her eyes began to wander aimlessly about the room. Arthur stopped talking, feeling hurt, and after a while she said, "Yes, go on." But, though he did go on, he felt sure that he was not really holding her interest. "I could tell I was boring her," he says. "I thought to myself that this was the wrong girl for me. Little did I realize at the time that the real trouble was that cross-country was the wrong sport."
As soon as he gracefully could—which, of course, was not until the season had ended—Arthur switched sports. "I decided to go out for something interesting," he says, "something that would help make a name for me in the college community. I decided it should be a specialized sort of sport, and I chose swimming." It was shortly after this decision that Arthur received the following letter from a girl—a different girl, one whom he had dated casually during the fall—whom I shall call Alice:
I am awfully afraid I shan't be able to come up to your Winter Weekend. I considered telling you that I had broken my arm or my leg or my collarbone, but I have decided to be perfectly truthful with you because I respect you as a person. The fact is, Arthur, that I cannot bear the idea of going to watch the freshman swimming meet which you say will be the "highlight" of the weekend. Maybe it will be for you, but it would not be for me. Everything is so humid at swimming meets that unless I wear dungarees whatever I have on comes all unpressed and my makeup drips. The air is so damp I can't even get my cigarettes lighted, and then when I do finally get them lighted I remember smoking is not allowed. Though you would be on the team and I would be in the gallery with your roommate I suppose, I would probably not even recognize you, Arthur, in your tank suit. So it seems rather fruitless, doesn't it?
Arthur had had his second bitter taste of what it feels like to be a Down sportsman.
When spring came, Arthur made another decision—another disastrous one, as it turned out. He decided to take up golf. "Nobody told me that nobody plays golf," he says. "I was really out of things then. My morale was at its lowest ebb."
Reflecting recently on his unsuccessful freshman year, Arthur said, "My big mistake was in the winter term. Instead of swimming I should have tried something exciting, like skiing." In this remark, unfortunately, Arthur reveals himself to be a person who is strangely Down-sport-prone. Skiing, which was an Up sport once, is definitely a Down sport now. It is Down for Reason 3—too popular with too many people. The downward swing was signaled a few years ago when skiing buffs, in order to find room to ski, had to turn their backs to the wintry slopes of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont and head west to places like Aspen, and the valleys Sun and Squaw. On eastern campuses the first small, sour looks at skiing as a sport were taken as recently as two years ago. Last year skiing plunged drastically out of fashion at several colleges. It even dropped somewhat at Dartmouth. This year it is predicted that the drop will be even more severe.
A more satisfactory winter sport for Arthur to have chosen would have been, oddly enough, wrestling. Wrestling, which by every rule should be a Down sport, is coming up. The reason for its climb appears to be that, unlike the television variety, college wrestling is supported by a small but extremely earnest and intense group of young men. It has its ardent devotees among the girls, too. "I always insist that my date take me to the wrestling matches!!!!" writes a Connecticut College for Women girl with a fondness for emphasis points and underscoring. "To me, it is an utterly fascinating sport, utterly menta!!! It's the only sport that involves me. It does to me what Tennessee Williams does to me in the theater!!!"
Now let us consider the career of Bradley B., a contemporary of Arthur A., who entered College Y at the same time—in the fall of last year. Bradley showed right off that he was Up-directed: during the fall term he went out for no sports at all. "I figured I would use that time," he says, "to get the lay of the land, and," he adds significantly, "to size things up." By the time the first snowflakes were in the air, however, he had decided, for his winter sport, "to play a little squash." In the manner of a true squash player, and the true Up sportsman, he speaks disparagingly of his prowess as a racquetman. "I did it mostly to keep in shape," he says with a shrug. In the spring, of course, he "played a little tennis" for the same reason. As Up sports, squash and tennis are extremely hard to beat. They have the breezy, casual air about them that is so important. They are suffused with an aura of easygoing good-fellowship and good manners. (As a North Shore Long Island lady has said, "I'm always delighted to throw the house open to the young men who come up to the club for Tennis Week—even if I don't know them. Of course, I'd hardly want to throw the house open to a group of golfers. That would be quite, quite different.") A member of Amherst's tennis squad has said, "The nice thing about the racket sports is they look easy to play but aren't; that keeps the duffers out of the game." Bradley B., in a thoughtful moment, said recently, "I would say tennis is a more important sport than squash. You play it in the spring, which is the most important time of year to make a good impression if you're looking for invitations to June coming-out parties."
A few years ago Bradley's counterpart might have become an oarsman for the college crew and have achieved the same level of Upness. Today, crew is an unwise choice. It is another of those sports that have been sliding down the Up list but in this case no one is quite sure why. The disintegration of the Yale-Harvard Regatta as a social event may be one reason. (What was a chic affair in the '20s has gradually turned into a general traffic jam that ties up all roadways, railways and riverways around New London, Conn. "Too many alumni have been getting into the act," explains a Yale senior.) Whatever the reason, crew is a good sport to shun for the time being, as Bradley B. was astute enough to realize. (At this writing, incidentally, Bradley B.'s future is assured. He is at present taking his time weighing a clutch of fraternity bids; he is the inamorata of all the best that Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence and a couple of junior colleges have to offer; and he is "playing a little soccer to keep in shape for the Christmas parties.")
Another spring sport that, like crew, has suffered from overcrowding is Rugby. And Rugby, alas, is going down before it had a chance to get very far up. For one thing, Rugby failed to get an official athletic department stamp at a number of colleges and so remained in a kind of dim half-world of sports. For another thing, on most campuses, Rugby players were seldom asked to learn how to play Rugby—the major requirement of the game had been the ability to muster round-trip plane fare to Bermuda for College Week. For many years College Week was cozy and gay and giggly. Then, slowly, the tiny Atlantic archipelago that had been the traditional glamour capital of Rugby began noticing great annual increases in the number of Rugby and non-Rugby players. Soon College Week became more crowded than the Yale-Harvard Regatta, more wild-eyed than Derby Day, Yale's famous (and now defunct) rite of spring. Today, College Week sits in the middle of Bermuda's sunny season like a drunk at a tea party. "I've gone to my last College Week," says a Princeton sophomore. "You can't believe what it's like. The hotels are all filled, so guys sleep under rocks on the beach. If you're lucky enough to have a room you're expected to share it with 20 other guys. The bar at the Elbow Beach Club is packed three people deep and filled with armed security guards who try to keep order. And the girls! College girls don't go there any more. My blind date was a CPA from Chicago. For my money, the whole Rugby thing has gone way, way down."
Still, Rugby seems to deserve a place on the prestige scale a notch above football. Mike Grean, Yale '59, who took up Rugby when a leg injury forced him to drop out of the varsity football team in his senior year, and became quite an accomplished player, says: "Yes, when I quit football for Rugby I noticed that my stock on campus immediately went up. It didn't go up much, of course—just enough for me to notice it. I could hold my head a little higher." Former Fullback Grean, who was a co-captain of his high school team, adds: "Of course, I missed football. But the extra little boost of prestige I got from playing Rugby almost made up for it."
The spring sport that appears to be moving up to take Rugby's place (and perhaps the place of crew as well) is lacrosse. It may be the great Up spring sport of tomorrow.
By now the discerning reader has probably noticed that I have so far avoided any discussion of football and its position on the scale, and perhaps has wondered why. My delay was deliberate. I was saving football until last. For it is about football that my most significant, and startling, conclusions have been drawn.
I felt that football deserved a long, steady look. It deserved a serious look, and a tender look. Often called King Football, the sport is, if not the mainstay, certainly the most enduring emblem of college life. For years football games have been the centers of huge, happy and sentimental gatherings. Weekend after weekend, year after year, the packed station wagons have threaded their way across the New England landscape toward the famous stadiums and bowls. Though all seemed well with football, to many of us there appeared signs that, at its heart, football was sickening—that it was moving slowly down the list. Many observers—misled by the steady flow of station wagons and the undiminished size of the Saturday crowds—denied this. What they failed to realize was that the crowds weren't gathering to watch football. They were gathering to meet old friends at Portal 9, to pass around the thermos of Martinis, to bundle in lap robes and beaver coats, to take movies of airplanes skywriting overhead, to wear big orange chrysanthemums, to hear the band play at the half, to wander over to Zeta Psi when the game was over.
During the games cheering sections failed to materialize, or if they showed up failed to make themselves heard across the field. Cheerleaders flopped hopelessly about, tugging, as kittens do with balls of string, for shreds of enthusiasm. Brilliant plays went unnoticed by larger and larger sections of the stands. Increasing numbers of spectators began to make a habit, in the final quarter, of heading for the parking lot before the game was over, to beat the crowds, calling, "Let us know how it comes out. See you at the Zete house!" College newspaper editors editorialized halfheartedly about "apathy," and Friday nights were given over to listless pep rallies. The social standing of football on the campus went down and down.
After World War II, when returning veterans—most of whom considered football kid stuff—flooded the campuses, football went lower still. Football players began to be openly, and loudly, kidded and lampooned. They became the butt of every joke. College humor magazines depicted them as apes, as Neanderthals, beleaguered dimwits who were able to stay in college only if they took the simplest gut courses and received elaborate scholastic coaching from their friends. If a particular fraternity happened to attract mostly football players to its membership, it became quickly known as The Ape House, or The Gorilla Cage, or The Jungle Club. College professors, rather than seeming to give football players a break, often seemed to be purposely giving them a harder time than other students, calling on them to recite excessively, ridiculing them if they made mistakes. Musclehead and meathead became popular expressions of derogation.
In the '20s and '30s, girls from Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, etc. were the football hero's for the asking. In the late '40s and '50s, the football player—no hero any more—had trouble finding himself a date. "Quite frankly, they don't make good weekend dates," says a Wellesley girl. "If they're on the team you have to go to the game with one of their friends. After the game, if they're not banged up somehow, they're tired. Their training rules mean they don't have much fun at parties. They go to sleep, and there you are."
During the week, too, life at the training table had the effect of isolating the football player from his fellow students. Lonely and neglected, he sought the only company that was available to him—the company of other football players. In the days following the first sputnik, intellectualism made a belated return to fashion on most college campuses. Football, already a Down sport, fell several notches. Then, very recently, a strange and wonderful thing began to happen to football. It started up. In a way, this was inevitable.
What had happened, you see, was that football—behind the deceptive mask of the tens of thousands who thronged to the stadiums every Saturday presumably to see football but actually to see each other—had become a sport that was supported only by a small, loyal and dedicated band of aficionados—the players, the coaches, the players' immediate families and close friends. And such a sport, of course, is an Up sport. As in department stores, the end of the down escalator is only a short step from the beginning of the up.
This is the state of football this fall—coming back into vogue but with modifications, like the chemise. I confidently predict that football will rise on the list, earning, in a few seasons' time, its rightful place again at the top of the list, above tennis. There are still plenty of detractors, of course. Madeleine Faunce, 19, a tall, dark-haired senior at Bennett, says: "Football players fail to impress me, frankly. And I don't care for the game. I adore tennis. To me, a football player is a great big overdeveloped blob of a thing. If a boy asks me for a date the things I take into consideration are: his school, his fraternity—some fraternities have gone way down, you know—and whether he's interesting and nice. If he plays football, though, I'm immediately suspicious." Miss Faunce adds, "Of course, I'm not really athletically minded. We have required sports at Bennett. I play badminton all year long."
But from Cindy Blanke, a pretty 17-year-old who is a senior at Rosemary Hall, a girls' boarding school in Connecticut, comes a slightly younger point of view—and a more positive one. "I like to watch a football game," she says a little defensively. "And, though I guess you'd say I'm sort of going steady, let me say that if a boy who played football asked me for a date, well, I wouldn't hold the fact that he played football against him." Miss Blanke's favorite sports, however, are tennis, lacrosse, hockey.
Meanwhile, at the men's colleges, football is on the threshold of a new era—the era of the egghead football player. An example of this stalwart new breed is Bill Gundy, captain of the Dartmouth team. Gundy is earnest and articulate about his sport, his education, and his plans for the future. "The more intelligent a man is the better football player he makes," Gundy says. "To play football well you have to be alert and able to think fast. If a guy is generally a dope he will be a dope on the football field." Gundy is a little wistful about the state he found football in when he first came to Dartmouth. "I came here from a public high school where football was the big thing," he says, "and I won't deny that it was a real shock to find that Dartmouth had a couldn't-care-less attitude about it. You can feel it, you know, when you're down there—a kind of lack of interest from the stands. But I've gotten used to it."
People like Bill Gundy are helping push football back up the prestige scale. I can't help wondering what further changes will occur to the game as it moves up from the murky pit of disrepute into the airy reaches of acceptability.
Who knows? Perhaps in its climb some rather unexpected things will happen. Perhaps instead of jumping from their seats, waving banners and shouting cheers future fans will approve an exceptional play with a round of polite applause. Stadiums will shrink in size, and the fans, now called spectators, will sit in folding chairs beneath green-and-white striped awnings. After the game little groups will gather to discuss, over lighted pipes and espresso, the various plays—now, perhaps, called moves. I'm not saying that such a day is here. But it could come.
A sign of the times: As football is mounting the scale of college sports, cheerleading is moving bumpily down. Grandfather would have approved.
6. Winter track