Thanks in large part to former President Alfred Bloom’s resignation and President Rebecca Chopp’s aggressive efforts to cultivate connections with former players, formerly alienated football alums feel more positive about the College than they have during any time since 2000.
Few students who attend Swarthmore today have any connection to Swarthmore’s football program, which was abolished 11 years ago in a controversial Board of Managers decision. The decision soured many former players’ relationships with Swarthmore and prompted some to refuse to donate.
At the time two Board members stepped down in protest of the Board’s decision: Neil Austrian ’61, who was on the team, and Jim Noyes. Noyes stated repeatedly that “football was not the only issue” behind his resignation ― “ethics was… I couldn’t be a part of the ethics [of that decision].”
Austrian resigned because he perceived the decision as an attack on the entire Athletics program. “Al Bloom was determined to get rid of athletics. It was an ideological issue,” he said.
Though it’s impossible to determine the cost to the college in terms of lost donations, many football player alumni reported an unwillingness to donate after the football program was disbanded.
Lisa Lee ’81, director of Alumni Relations, was vague when asked whether cutting the program resulted in a drop in donations.
“There are those who will not donate and those who will increase their donations for any number of reasons,” she said. Some former players suggest it’s unclear whether funding did decrease as a result of the decision.
Most of the people interviewed for this article, opponents and supporters of the decision, still believe that it was an instance of remarkably poor public relations. Jordan Brackett ‘01, Student Council Co-president in 2000, speaks fondly of Bloom’s achievements as president, but critiques the community’s preparation for the ban.
Brackett remembers thinking that the administration should have been more transparent and should have tried to better explain the decision beforehand. He met with Bloom as frequently as twice a week during the period surrounding the decision. Instead, the community was caught “off guard; they had a visceral reaction,” Brackett said.
Lillian Kraemer, a member of the Board during the decision who worked closely with Brackett, says the administration “was not prepared for the depth of the negative reaction.”
A decade later, the anger is receding. Lee remembers that several years ago she was receiving an angry letter every so often from a disaffected former football player. Now, she says “the number of conversations isn’t as large as it was… you don’t hear it as much anymore.”
Even Mind the Light, an energetic organization that advocated for the return of football, has disbanded. Some of the group’s letters have the sort of rhetorical virtuosity that make one think the group was founding a great institution, not arguing for the retention of its football team.
As Hank Bode ’55 says, now the decision is “just a part of history.” Though he was “sad, […] angry in the emotional part of my brain” for the first few years, “my logical brain said this game’s an awful expensive toy to have around… financially, philosophically, abolishing football makes sense.”
These alumni greatly prefer Chopp to Bloom, who was instrumental in getting the program abolished. Chopp gets rave reviews from many of the former football players.
“I love Rebecca… she’s terrific,” said Austrian. Noyes called Chopp “outstanding,” and ranks her presidency a “10.”
In the space of just a few minutes, alum Jeff Selverian ’86 called her “fantastic,” “terrific,” “awesome,” “wonderful,” and “a breath of fresh air.”
Wes Argo ’57 agrees, with a slight alteration: “She’s a phenomenal breath of fresh air.”
Chopp attends their events, approaches them, listens to their concerns, and speaks publicly about the importance of athletics.
Austrian organized a big event in Manhattan in June 2010, inviting interested former players and their extended family and supporter networks to come discuss football and Swarthmore. Chopp came to the meeting and spoke to the crowd.
Chopp and Austrian, who has pledged to find full financial support if football should ever return, spent several hours over dinner one evening discussing football and Swarthmore’s past and future. “She understands why athletics can be good,” Austrian said.
It’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which football might come back, given that it would still be impossible to field a sufficiently large team and because many students would rather see college funds directed elsewhere. Though the Strategic Planning reports suggest athletics will continue to be robustly supported, they contain no language on football.
Regardless, the NYC event has rekindled hope for the sport’s return. Argo thinks “football is ripe to come back.” Other former football players, however, have accepted that football is unlikely to return.
Last year, for the first time since 2000, former players, supporters, and members of DU got together with the Athletic Department to host their traditional Pig Roast. Chopp, who attended, said the event was “so powerful for me.” She said, “[it] celebrated football’s history.”
The Athletics Department is set to induct the first ever class of hall of fame members this spring, including football players. Athletics Communication Director Mark Anskis says they’ve looked at former players to induct, and are combing the archives for game reports and statistics going all the way back to 1878.