Last fall, after Princeton scored in the last two minutes to defeat Harvard by one touchdown, Princeton coach Charley Caldwell walked into the post game press conference and astounded the assembled reporters. "Now if you want to watch some really good football," he said, "you'll go out there and pump for the return of spring practice and two-platoon football.
One year later, on the eve of the post-season coaches' conferences, Caldwell's views seem as inappropriate and undeserved as on their first utterance. Despite his argument about improving the game and reducing injuries, one platoon, fall season football has proven its worth.
To the Ivy football coach who watches varsity crews practicing during the fall, the ban on spring football sessions undoubtedly seems maddening in its inconsistency. If crew can row through a full year, they argue, why should football not be a two season sport. It is a strong argument, for both are played under the same athletic codes by students from the same university. But the fault lies not in the sports themselves, but in the relative pressures involved. Football's burden stems from its own popularity--in a sense its restrictions are self-imposed.
For today's college football has been left a strange legacy. It has been set aside from the rest of the athletic program by an almost fanatic following on the part of undergraduates, alumni, and local fans. This difference is evidenced numerically by the 40,000 people who watched the Yale game, and the 10,000 who could not get tickets. Saturday's front pages are another indication--both the Boston and undergraduate papers treat the games with headlines equalled only by the resignation of a college president. Football, the game played between undergraduates has been caught up and dominated by something else: football, the focus point for a Saturday social event.
It was this emphasis on football and the resulting abuses which forced the spring practice ban in March, 1952. After two years it is apparent that one season football is a success. While spring practice does not represent the chief danger of big time football, it is one aspect of football's emphasis, and by removing it, the game itself is played down. For the use of spring practice too often implies a drive at professionalism, which is no problem in any other collegiate sport. It is unfortunate that football coach and player are denied something available to the crew teams, but it is a price that football must pay for its importance, interest, and subsequent gate receipts. When 50,000 people are willing to pay $5.00 a seat to watch a crew race, then it is time to end fall crew practice.
Voluntary spring practice has often been advanced by proponents of off-season workouts. Caldwell and other coaches have reiterated countless times that it keeps players in shape and reduces injuries. But recent studies have shown no noticeable increase in injuries among players deprived of spring practice. Few would contest the point that any player who will keep in shape over the summer after undergoing spring practice will also stay in shape over the summer without it. Moreover, spring practice would hardly be voluntary, as football players out for lacrosse, track or baseball would jeopardize their standing on the football team by not attending its spring workouts.
The case for the retention of one platoon football is considerably more clear cut. The scores of Harvard's Ivy League games for the two years under the ruling are the soundest argument for limited substitution. The biggest margin of victory is still the Crimson's 13-0 win over Yale in 1953, while the present season, in which Harvard lost to the University of Massachusetts and still beat Cornell and Princeton should convince anyone of the close competitive game which the one platoon rule has returned to football.
The proponents of two-platoons argue that it produced a better game and allowed many more boys to play, but close football is often a very fine substitute for professional football, particularly on the amateur level. Admittedly, there were many more boys who played under the old two-platoon rules, but perhaps the resultant specialist was not a football player in the complete sense of the word.
Ivy League and collegiate football have come a long way since 1952 when college athletics were married by scandals. Since then football has regained the respect of educators, as well as enthusiasm of the fans. Perhaps too it is a more frustrating brand of football for the perfectionist to coach. But college football is designed for undergraduates to play and watch, not for older men to teach.
Even after two years of de-emphasis, football is still dangerously susceptible to the combined pressures of bigness and popularity. This year is no time to slacken requirements. Even if the NCAA in its forthcoming meeting returns to two-platoon football, the Ivy colleges, now entering the threshold of legitimacy, should limit substitution, just as they should limit practice sessions.