An Isolated Conference in an Age of Expansion

An Isolated Conference in an Age of Expansion

NESCAC football is cloaked in a shroud of bucolic secrecy: the 11 members of the conference have made a commitment to only play each other, each team engaging in a nine-game schedule against every other institution in the conference. The teams fastidiously avoid outside competition, and eschew the Division III playoffs in lieu of competing solely for the conference championship.

With that comes a seemingly self-contained joy that few other conferences, and few other institutions, can enjoy. Perhaps the only football league that comes close to replicating what the NESCAC does is the Ivy League, but even these schools consistently play teams outside of their conference, despite not competing in post-season play or for a national championship.

Perhaps, as a result, time moves slower in NESCAC football than in other conferences. There’s no concern in how you’re perceived or the level of competition that you might face outside of the small community these 10 schools have created, no pressure to adapt to the changing times, no need to expand your facilities to rival anyone but your closest competitors. It is, some have said, athletics and sports in their purest forms.

The football teams of the NES-CAC aren’t a lot of things that the giants of college football are. No one playing on these fields is going to make it to the NFL. Most every-one will be here four years. However, they are many great things that Alabama, North Carolina and Texas aren’t. They’re true student-athletes, not athlete-students. This isn’t an audition for a professional contract, and no one is prohibited from quitting the team by an athletic scholarship. Your being here is not contingent on you playing football.

As Amherst’s head football coach EJ Mills told ESPN in 2007, “They’re playing strictly for the love of the game and the appreciation of their other teammates. That’s what motivates them to want to do well.” What remains, despite this lack of prominence, is a simple and relatively (at least compared to up-per divisions) pure passion for the game, for the sport and for the tradition. As former Amherst College President Tom Gerety once said in Sports Illustrated, these games “fulfill the natural drive to test oneself against others. It is our greatest ritual, short of war. I don’t have much trouble justifying them, but that’s only in this kind of setting. It seems everywhere else, sports are a distort-ing force.”

On a very basic level, the results of NESCAC games do not matter to the millions of fans who follow college football around the country. But comparing the results and play of the Amherst football team to that of Alabama, Colby to Clemson, Bates to Boston College, misses the point of these contests entirely. It’s a question of what we are looking for: if we’re looking for football played at the pinnacle of human athletic achievement, no offense, you’re going to be looking in the wrong place at Homecoming when Amherst and Wesleyan face off against one another. But if you’re looking for an event, for students giving it all on a field that doesn’t even have a stated capacity, to feel as if you’re a part of a small and tight-knit community with passion, cast your eyes on these fields.

However, they matter a great deal to the alumni of these institutions who number in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. This community of enthusiasm, a collective acknowledgment of our own smallness and of its insular importance, is a beautiful thing. It has bred intense yet civil rivalries between institutions born out of proximity but enhanced by more than a century of play.

From the first matchup between Amherst and Williams in 1859, a baseball game that the Mammoths won 73-32, to the coming games between NESCAC rivals, there has been a tradition of competition that does not necessarily rise to a certain level of importance.

And that is, perhaps, the most valuable part of competition in the conference as a whole: what makes the games between Williams and Amherst, Wesleyan and Colby, Connecticut and Trinity special is that they are not special. They are truly amateur games between amateurs with nothing to lose but the game and their pride.

Athletics in the NESCAC have historically been guided by the belief that athletes and competitors can learn in the classroom and complement, even enhance, their understanding as much on the playing fields as they can in the library. In this most athletic extension of the NESCAC’s liberal arts educations, we believe that drinking from the fountain of knowledge can be supplemented by a drink from a Gatorade bottle on the sideline.

As Gerety described in Sports Illustrated, “Be it poetry, acting, philosophy or athletics, any youngster has more to give than what is called for in a traditional class.”

But, in order to retain this special difference and separation, we must remain ever vigilant that we truly compete for the reasons we say that we do: to learn more about ourselves in support of our academic endeavors, to play for the love of the game and to keep college athletics truly amateur. In order to do this, however, this spirit of amateurism must be fastidiously preserved and guarded against the corrupting influence of big money, big importance and big exploitation. In the past, the NESCAC has enforced these standards with often serious consequences.

The history of the NESCAC has seen one full-blown scandal in its past. In 1977, Union College, then a member of the conference, was accused of violating NESCAC recruiting practices. The NESCAC prohibits coaches from making official visits to athletes and a complete ban on off-campus recruiting. Union was accused of off-campus recruiting in its quest for a stronger hockey team; the conference promptly removed them from competition. Union admitted recruiting violations and irregularities, and now play Division I hockey after their expulsion from the NESCAC.

If this strict, almost religious, adherence to a series of agreed-up-on principles was this strong in 1977, one would hope that a similar spirit still exists in the conferences’ athletic departments today.

Since that radical expulsion, the NESCAC has, in some respects, undergone some seismic changes to its governing structure and philosophy. In 1993, school presidents of the 11 member institutions voted to allow all teams, except football, to participate in post-season NCAA tournaments. Since then, NESCAC institutions have won over 150 team national championships, and individual athletes have won countless individual national titles.

In some respects, this has diluted the individuality and insularity of the NESCAC and its model of academically-focused athletic competition. Schools are now incentivized to break traditional conference norms and restrictions, and pursue larger and more national goals. It would behoove the conference, in the coming years, to monitor this expansion so that the conference retains its traditional focus on academic results, rather than athletic records, and does not fall prey, like many around the country, to the relentless pursuit of athletics at the cost of academics.

Irregardless, the NESCAC re-mains a bastion of amateurism in a world of increasingly-profession-al college sports, a fact that makes those Amherst/Williams games so special, 15,000 screaming fans cheering not for the pinnacle of athletic achievement but rather for the passion that drives those with no shot of playing beyond these bumpy fields to represent their schools on their few collegiate weekends to the fullest of their extents.