It also guaranteed one more thing-like it or not, my class will now graduate from Amherst as “The Class That Beat Williams.” Of course, we’ve beaten them many times since we got here in 1997, including major victories on the playing field-such as the women’s tennis team’s NCAA title-clinching victory in the 1999 Championship-and off, provided that we give credence to U.S. News and World Report.
Lately, however, the only victory that has mattered to too many people is the one that came on Saturday. For years it did not matter whether we were a better school academically, or a more diverse school ethnically and socioeconomically, or even if more of our teams beat them than vice versa. For a school with 27 varsity athletic teams, all that mattered was the outcome of one of the games for one of our teams.
Lamenting close calls in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999, beating Williams at football became an obsession. Even whispers about entire classes admitted to Amherst for the sole purpose of winning that game came to the surface, as each successive loss to Williams only worsened the stigma.
In response, many members of the Amherst community, myself included, began asking a simple question: why? If beating Williams is so important, why does it not matter if, as in 1998-99, over half of our teams do beat Williams? Why, in the end, does one sport matter more than the other 26 combined?
Answers to those questions that I’ve heard have ranged from the incorrect, “because football was the first sport we ever played against Williams” to the incredibly stupid, (“because more people play football”). Does that mean that we shouldn’t have been excited about our one NCAA championship, won by one of Amherst’s smallest varsity teams-women’s tennis-in 1999?
More and more, I came to realize that the reason why beating Williams at football was such a big deal was just because we hadn’t in so long, a realization as painfully obvious as it seemed profound at the time. If football were to beat Williams every year, it seems very likely that we wouldn’t care nearly as much. We covet what we don’t have, and what we didn’t have, at least before Saturday, was a win in our last 13 football games against our hated rival.
So, now that we finally have that win-and the end to 13 years of torture at the hands of our rivals-it seems fair to say that we can stop making such a big deal out of one of our 27 sports at the expense of the other 26. Such was the case on Saturday, for while the football team was earning its first win over Williams since 1986, the women’s cross country team was earning the first trip to Nationals by an Amherst cross country team ever; yet, many of you are probably learning this for the first time right now.
Shifting the emphasis away from football-at least partially-and redirecting some of it towards the other 26 varsity sports is certainly a difficult proposition. First and foremost, much of the emphasis on football comes from a network of alumni whose influence has, for years, made football a higher priority than any other sport.
Unless the alumni have a massive change of heart, the solution has to come from within. The first step must be decreasing the actual size of the football team. Fully one in ten men at Amherst play football, with an even-higher ratio of first-year men playing football. Compare that with the fact that fewer than half of Amherst’s men will play a varsity sport during their four years at the College, and football seems to loom disproportionately large.
Certainly, football rosters need to be somewhat larger than other rosters, since it is a sport that has twice as many starters (22) as soccer or lacrosse (11). Still, carrying 75 to 80 players seems out of place at a school of only 800 male students, let alone at a school of that size which is already questioning the current role of its athletic program.
Knowing that we need to reduce football roster sizes and actually reducing them are two separate issues. The medium through which such a reduction must take place is the NESCAC, since all we have to measure ourselves is our performance against other conference schools. Ironically, football is the one NESCAC sport in which we play no non-conference games, so herein lies the perfect opportunity for just such a step.
Slowly, the presidents of the 11 member institutions are moving in that direction, with a move already afoot to reduce roster sizes to 65 beginning next year or the year after. I think it is a positive step, but one that is not big enough. That our football team finally beat Williams is a wonderful accomplishment, and I mean to take absolutely nothing away from the hard work and dedication that paid off in Saturday’s victory. All I am saying is that, now that we have finally gotten the monkey off our back, we had better take advantage of the opportunity, before another paralyzing 13-year winless streak comes along.
Steve Vladeck ’01 is a staff writer for The Amherst Student.