"Knights Football: Undefeated since 1876"
So say the T-shirts sold in the Calvin Campus Store. The shirts get a smile out of many students, alumni and parents as they walk by the display.
What most of these shoppers do not know is that the college is seriously investigating the prospect of Calvin Knights crouching at a line of scrimmage.
For the fourth time in Calvin history, an all-campus task force has been appointed to thoroughly research whether Calvin should institute football as a varsity sport.
The Football Feasibility Task Force began meeting on Feb. 14 of this year and is due to report to the college’s Planning and Priorities Committee at the end of 2011 or in early 2012. The task force includes 31 members representing all sectors of campus life, and Professor Brian Bolt, chair of the kinesiology department, heads up the endeavor.
“In my position, I hear questions about football from faculty and staff, alumni, current and prospective students, and supporters of the college. Given the interest in football, I thought it was time to revisit the question,” said Bolt.
Since the beginning of the task force’s work, a steady stream of advice, counsel and opinions has poured into Bolt’s office.
“Football at Calvin seems to elicit a reaction from just about everybody. Some are very enthusiastic, and others think it’s the worst idea ever,” said Bolt. “However, the arguments for or against seem to be based more in emotion than fact. The main purpose of the task force is to gather the necessary data needed to make an informed decision about football, one way or the other.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about intercollegiate sport in general and about football in particular. Ultimately, the question of whether football is right for Calvin is a uniquely ‘Calvin’ decision, but hopefully the results of our work will help people be better informed.”
The work of the task force has been divided into four committees, with members assigned to work in each area: mission/identity, academic/athletic implications, community/communication and finance/enrollment. There have been four substantive full-group sessions since February and numerous subgroup consults.
Bolt said that task force members came into the process with a variety of opinions about football and have been enthusiastic and thorough in the investigation.
Three previous Calvin committees have walked down this football feasibility road. In 1969, President Spoelhof received a recommendation that while touch football could be an intramural sport and education about football could be taught in physical education classes, intercollegiate football should not be pursued. The reasons cited were cost and potential injuries.
Football came up again in 1976, as the physical education department spent time discussing the possibility of the sport at Calvin. That conversation didn’t move beyond the department.
Finally, in 1985, a more comprehensive study was initiated after about 70 students asked to organize a football club. These students said they would purchase their own equipment. The query was directed at the student life committee, which in turn commissioned a larger, all-campus group to examine the issue. For the third time, the conclusion was negative.
Surveys done for the 1985 study revealed that students were in favor of adding the sport, while faculty and alumni were against establishing football at Calvin. In fact, the student vote was 1,641 in favor and 147 opposed.
In the 1985 report’s final summary, this conclusion was reached:
A recurrent theme from respondents, interviewees and colleagues is that football does not fit in at Calvin. The goals of the college are being met without football—indeed, we have a surplus of students and a wide range of activities for them to engage in for their self-fulfillment and for their education to be Christians in today’s society. Calvin is known for its academic achievements and recruits successfully because of them. Although football might not be harmful to the goals of the college, neither would it enhance them. An endeavor the size of a football program must be able to justify its introduction as being important to the goals of the college—and it cannot.
In addition, the 1985 report cited a number of reasons for not introducing football: major injury potential; high startup and annual budget costs; stadium construction costs; lack of specific need; shift of academic-athletic balance; lack of support among alumni and faculty; and heavy staff and coaching burden on the physical education department.
That same report did leave the door open for future consideration, however, noting that “the issue of football at Calvin should be reviewed periodically.”
And now, 26 years later, another in-depth football study is under way. What has changed since 1985?
Bolt said that some aspects of the current task force effort will mirror work done in 1985 and before to determine changes at the college and external factors since those studies.
“The task force will still consider whether and how football would contribute to Calvin’s overall mission and how it would fit within Calvin’s current athletic structure. Football injury is also a substantial concern, so the question will be asked again about whether the injury potential of football as we now understand it is an acceptable risk given the potential benefits of the game to the players and the campus community,” he said. “And of course there are questions about the financial implications, how football changes the culture of a campus and whether student athletes who play football are different than other student athletes. These and other questions remain.”
Bolt also noted that the landscape around Calvin has changed since the 1985 study. For instance, more high schools now have football programs, including some Christian schools from which Calvin has historically had high enrollment. It is also true that Calvin itself has seen an overall enrollment decline in the past few years.
In addition, the task force has found that societal perceptions of the costs and benefits of the sport have changed. Short- and long-term planning for outdoor athletic facilities has also come up in the conversations.
Up to this point the football task force has kept an intentional low profile, seeking to concentrate on collecting information about the sport from similar institutions (Hope, Ohio Northern, Wheaton) and to gather data that can give a reasonable picture of what Calvin football might be like. In this final stage of the study, the task force is interested in opening up the conversation externally.
As in 1985, surveys will be sent—this time electronically—to students, faculty and staff, and alumni to determine the views from these groups. In addition, this Spark article and open forums at various alumni events this fall will give many a chance to weigh in.
“In addition to the main question regarding whether they believe Calvin should or should not add football, we will ask some questions about the reasoning behind their decisions and whether or not they could see themselves participating in the event of football at Calvin in some way,” Bolt said. “The surveys will add an important element to the task force’s final report, along with information from live visits to football games and interviews at our comparison colleges.”
What have the 2011 “Football at Calvin?” investigators discovered during their six months of study?
“Of course, the findings so far can be interpreted from multiple perspectives, and our investigation has turned up some information counter to conventional wisdom. For instance, as a sport football yields one of the highest rates of injury, but it is also comparable to other sports currently at Calvin, and in some cases football causes fewer injuries than other sports,” Bolt said.
Calvin professor of biology Hessel “Bud” Bouma III is one of the campus community members concerned about an increase in serious injuries.
“I am deeply conflicted on the sport of football. On the one hand, I’m drawn to its exciting blend of speed, strength, power, agility, split-second timing and extraordinary team coordination to execute or prevent successful plays. But it’s also a ferocious contact sport that produces a disproportionate number of serious injuries to athletes’ knees, backs, necks and heads,” said Bouma. “Deeply troubling are the forces of collisions producing concussions and the frequencies with which these are occurring, not just in games, but also in practices. And until the last few years, traumatic brain injuries were largely covered up or downplayed, from the NFL to colleges and universities to high schools.”
Bouma has a file on “football and health risks” that documents scientific and medical studies on the sport and the precautions schools are taking nationwide as a result.
Another major worry is about the costs of starting a football program, and some wonder whether an investment of this size would convey an inappropriate priority toward intercollegiate sports. Conversely, some colleges similar to Calvin are adding football as a means of raising revenue, since the projected increase in enrollment appears to offset the costs of adding the sport.
Bolt notes that in seeking answers to these and other questions, it is important to position the possibility of football at Calvin in the appropriate context. He said that Calvin is firmly committed to remaining in NCAA Division III, which means that students who play sports are admitted to the college and provided financial aid in the same way as students who do not play sports.
He added that this is very different than universities or colleges in higher NCAA divisions and even the small, often private colleges governed by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA): “Those institutions can provide athletic scholarships and operate under very different parameters for practice and competition than NCAA Division III. For this reason the task force will look closely at Division III schools for information, and we have chosen three schools for close comparison because there are aspects of each of these schools that are similar to Calvin.”
Task force member and Calvin political science professor Doug Koopman played football at Hope College for four years, which gives him both the student athlete and professor perspectives. As a Hope football player, Koopman saw it “as one way I could contribute to the life of the campus.”
Koopman was a math major getting his secondary education teaching certificate, and he was involved in several extracurricular activities besides football.
“As part of the fall campus experience, though, football then, as now, was big,” he said. “Varsity athletics at Hope had—and my impression is that it continues to have—more on-campus influence than it does at Calvin, and football was then the premier varsity sport. My experience was that this was good and bad: We got a lot of attention, but we also felt a lot of pressure to perform well—from across the Holland community, not just Hope. On campus I never felt I got an unfair advantage from either my professors or the Hope administration because of my football activity, although I know some Hope students thought we did.”
Looking at the possibility of football at Calvin, and now viewing things from the professorial vantage point, Koopman has pondered the idea of more athletes in his classroom.
“I have had many varsity athletes in my classrooms in my 16 years of teaching at Calvin,” he said. “While there have been rare disappointments, as a general rule varsity athletes work harder and are better organized than other Calvin students. Nearly all have been at Calvin to be students first and athletes second, as is the hallmark of Division III athletics. I think Division III athletics gives students discipline and an appreciation for hard work and collective responsibility, or attracts students who have these characteristics.
“Given the way Calvin would be likely to recruit and treat students who played football if it chose to add a football team, I would expect football-playing Calvin student athletes to be much like these other Calvin student athletes—net-positive contributors to classes and the campus environment. That doesn’t mean I support football at Calvin, but it does mean I think Calvin could add football and enhance a Calvin education and undergraduate experience,” he said.
Calvin is known for its public debates over all things theological, and this institutional tendency to chew on issues with determined vigor has migrated to the topic of football as well.
Should Calvin institute football, there’s no doubt that the cute Campus Store shirts will become a relic of a bygone era. Of course, despite the excellence of the Knights in a wide array of sports and the expectation that a great Calvin football team could arise, losses are inevitable (especially in the startup years).
But should football join the other Calvin varsity sports?
Back in 1986, Spark’s own sage Anonymous Bosch was asked about football at Calvin. After giving the “institutional and official answers,”
Bosch revealed that the real reason not to have football at the college was the price of regular victories.
“Once we decided to dress up the Calvinist work ethic in shoulder pads, spikes and helmets, you can imagine the predictable success we’d enjoy. Not in the first year or two, of course, but sooner or later it would be obvious that Calvin’s excellence had been translated into yardage and first downs and conversion plays,” Bosch wrote (as always, tongue firmly in cheek).
Bosch went on to lament the embarrassment of Calvin alumni on NFL teams, violent behavior spilling into doctrinal disputes, and heightened tension between the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America (over Calvin-Hope football games).
Those concerns will likely not appear in the final report of the Football Feasibility Task Force. But many in the Calvin community are intrigued about what the final conclusion will be and what present-day factors are cited as the reasons for the task force’s recommendations.