School of Murphy

In a football world dominated by scandal, Harvard coach Tim Murphy has created his own gridiron culture.

Sarah P Reid

Harvard coach Tim Murphy has built his own "school within a school" through his time with the Crimson program.

“Now, we all begin a new phase of our partnership,” reads a letter sent from Harvard football coach Tim Murphy to the parents of each incoming freshman player. “Over my twenty years at Harvard, our football team has functioned most effectively as a ‘school within a school.’ In this role, your son will learn many of life’s lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom. It is my goal to help him prepare for life using football as the vehicle. The next few years will present him with new opportunities to grow and our football program can be one of the cornerstones of this process.”

Football is under attack. Just last week best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell said, “Football is a moral abomination.” Days later, The New York Times published thousands of words on how the NFL has improperly dealt with cases of domestic abuse. The national newspaper of record previously wrote, “At Florida State, Football Clouds Justice.”

There has also been the Ray Rice scandal, the Adrian Peterson scandal, and before those, the Steubenville High School rape case involving high school players and Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide.

Concerns about concussions have been raised as well. Playing football has been linked to cases of Alzheimer’s, depression, and even suicide.

LeBron James, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and even President Barack Obama have all expressed concerns about letting their sons, real or imaginary, play the violent game.
Football has been compared to ill-fated Big Tobacco, and people have begun asking how much longer it will be around at all. Others have wished for a return to the simpler game of gridirons past.


There was a time when the game was hailed as a more civilized teaching ground for young men than the battlefield. Back then, it was seen as a place for proper training for life in an industrial society.

When the Ivy League presidents discussed football in 1945, they concluded, “Under proper conditions, intercollegiate competition in football offers desirable recreation for players and a healthy focus of collegiate loyalty.”

But in 2004, professors at the University of Idaho and Washington State University concluded, “The environment of athletics has not been supportive of teaching and modeling moral knowing, moral valuing, and moral action. Perhaps, because there are very limited consequences for immoral behaviors in the sport environment, but very large consequences in the real world.”

They had studied 72,000 athletes using a test of moral reasoning.

At times, the evidence can seem overwhelming—damning. And it’s mounting.

But then there is Murphy and his “school within a school.” Is it possible that he has maintained the proper conditions the Ancient Eight alluded to 69 years ago and has created a different “environment of athletics” that fosters morality rather than restrains it?

Take a tour of the Murphy School and decide.


When potential football recruits visit Harvard, they are not the only ones making evaluations. Murphy is learning, too.

Former defensive lineman Adam Riegel ’13 explained that coaches expect host players to decide whether the high schooler would be a good fit within the team’s culture.