Abolish Football or Beat Cal?

Nov. 16, 2010, 8:52 a.m.


During a commercial break in Stanford’s football game last week, a friend showed me the Wikipedia page of Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909. Eliot is credited with many reforms at Harvard including pushing against racial and religious prejudice and transforming the school into a preeminent research institution. One of his major efforts that did not gain so much traction, however, was his attempt to abolish football.


In 1905, the New York Times quoted him as describing football as “a fight whose strategy and ethics are those of war,” that violation of rules cannot be prevented, that “the weaker man is considered the legitimate prey of the stronger” and that “no sport is wholesome in which ungenerous or mean acts which easily escape detection contribute to victory.”


And his antipathy for sports did not stop there. He objected to baseball, basketball and hockey as well. He once said, “Well, this year I’m told the [baseball] team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” According to Eliot, rowing and tennis were the only clean sports. (Lucky for tennis, Eliot never saw the spin on a Rafa Nadal forehand!)


Remnants of Eliot’s attitude were even seen in two characters in David Fincher’s The Social Network—the Winklevoss twins. The two are portrayed in the film as blue-blooded future Olympian rowers who pride themselves on being true “Harvard men” and being at the top of their school’s social ladder.


In the week before Big Game, when Stanford fountains are flowing with red water, when a giant “Beat Cal” banner covers the front of Meyer Library, when I can bike through White Plaza at 2AM and see dedicated fans camping out under red lighting, I’ve got to say it: it feels good to be at Stanford.


Football means Stanford remembering the fun of (in good sport) hooking Oski to the top of the Claw, taking down Cal in Gaities and winning the axe in Big Game. Stanford’s love of sports (and yes, love of winning in them!) is one way we live on the same planet as the rest of the country, one way some smart people keep it a little real. And that feels great.


So during my last Big Game Week, there’s only one thing I can think of saying: let’s BEAT CAL!

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