Football losses can be one way to identify a good college

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 20, 1999

A college or university might be visited by fame from the success of its football team, but it might actually store up honor from record losses on the gridiron.

Monday, September 20, 1999

A college or university might be visited by fame from the success of its football team, but it might actually store up honor from record losses on the gridiron. So it is with such as Ohio’s Oberlin and Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore. When a college loses football games because it has its priorities straight with education on the top, I put it at the top of my list of education worth well beyond the reach of the school with the best win record in the nation.

Email newsletter signup

One might think that the game of the century would be two undefeated teams with long winning streaks meeting each other for the first time. This season’s opening game between Oberlin and Swarthmore could rank there, although for a distinctly different reason. Swarthmore’s Garnet Tide arrived with 28 consecutive losses, the longest losing streak in college football. It hadn’t won a game since 1995, and that was only 2-0. Oberlin’s Yeomen had an equally miserable record. Although they had lost only the last 19 games, it is also true that they had lost 59 out of the last 60.

Time was when both schools did not do badly in athletics-before the days of the aggressive recruiting of high school athletes by the big universities with lavish "scholarships." In those days, jocks without the ability and/or will to study just did not bother with college, and the real students who could also play were more equitably distributed among the various colleges and universities. Athletics was extra-curricular rather than a major. Students studied and then played, and the play enhanced the study with refreshed bodies and spirits.

Both intercollegiate and intramural athletics enjoy demonstrated value to a school and to education, with the latter not being as appreciated as it should be. Especially in small colleges, it had been a unifying activity – even a shared experience. The students, staff, and faculty in the bleachers were as involved in the game as the players on the field or court. They returned to classrooms with the feeling they had done something together. If they could not celebrate a victory, they joined each other in sorrow.

Now there are often more non-students in the stands, and the team’s principal contribution is to community entertainment. Those students who do attend are more disinterested spectators than involved supporters. They come more to be entertained than inspired, if not simply to act up.

Crucial non-academic lessons have been learned from athletic participation by students. The Duke of Wellington is quoted as having judged that "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." Today’s coaches, however, are less teachers than bosses. No longer is it usually "It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," because this has been replaced with "You win or you’re fired!"

Athletics can only be justified as physical education: a learning experience that teaches students how to care for and use their bodies to experience a wholesome life. The emphasis is most properly placed on those athletic skills that can be used not only throughout life but to enrich and prolong life.

I don’t think athletics income justifies the expense. If cost accounting is done carefully, I seriously doubt if it would prove athletics actually generates an income for the school greater than the cost. The way it is currently being managed, it also creates fertile ground for financial and moral corruption. Corrupted athletics could well ruin a school.

Because neither Swarthmore nor Oberlin can boast about their football wins, they may as well take pride in their losses because of what they mean: Students are there to study and learn. Both can certainly be proud of those students. At both schools 99 percent of freshmen were in the top 10th of their high school classes. Both are small and well rated, with Oberlin larger and Swarthmore more highly rated. By the way, Swarthmore won the game, and now Oberlin has a crack at the record.