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September 12, 2001:
Football: Not just an Ivy League sport anymore
A new book by Mark Bernstein '83 details the origins and history of the gridiron game

By Louis Jacobson '92

In the cutthroat world of book publishing, it's rare for a publisher to approach a novice author with a book idea. But that's exactly what happened to Mark Bernstein '83. Four years ago, Bernstein noticed a passing reference in the "Philadelphia Inquirer" to a long-forgotten Princeton-Penn football game held at Philadelphia's Academy of Music. Bernstein, a freelance journalist, wrote a story about the event for both PAW and the "Pennsylvania Gazette," Penn's alumni magazine. Three weeks after the story appeared, the University of Pennsylvania Press contacted Bernstein to see if he'd be willing to write a full-blown history of Ivy League football. "I couldn't say no," Bernstein says.

"Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession" is finally in bookstores, the product of many months of rooting around university archives and staring at microfilmed newspapers. From 1869 until the early 1920s — a period when Ivy teams won almost every national football championship — "the history of Ivy League football is the history of football," Bernstein says. Beginning with the very first college football game (between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869) through the fine-tuning of the rules by Yale's legendary coach Walter Camp to the three Rose Bowl appearances by Brown, Penn, and Harvard between 1915 and 1920, "the Ivy League really invented most of what's good and bad about the game of football," Bernstein says.

For Bernstein, the "good" includes the pageantry and fun of college sports, not to mention the eventual creation of pro football and even the birth of the sports page as a distinct newspaper section. The "bad," he says, includes "the corrosive influence of money, the physical violence, and the pressure to win, which had an effect on academic integrity."

To Bernstein, the biggest myth of Ivy football was that the game was a purer embodiment of amateur ideals in the early 20th century. "Ivy football is actually purer now than it was, in terms of being kept in the proper perspective of campus life," he says. Bernstein uncovered countless letters from early 20th-century fans outraged at the behavior of drunk and rowdy football fans; after one Princeton-Williams game, he reports, stadium workers carted out two truckloads of empty liquor bottles. "Today, the players are better students, and the fans are better behaved," he says.

Yet through the years, Ivy football has reverberated far beyond the stadium. Bernstein argues that football prowess has been deeply intertwined with the academic reputations of today's Ivy League schools. The groupings of America's most elite universities, he says, had as much to do with their degree of athletic competitiveness as they did with the scholarly accomplishments of students and professors. "In the 1930s and 1940s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were reluctant to include Penn and Cornell in their ranks because the Big Three thought they weren't good enough academically," Bernstein says. But by the time the Ivy League officially coalesced in 1956, the two former outcasts were included.

Bernstein, 39, grew up in — and lives — in Philadelphia. At Princeton, he was a history major and was involved in the radio show "Focus on Youth." (He was also "a regular fan" of Tiger football and basketball, but never had any scholarly interest in the topic until the book offer materialized.) After working for a small Texas newspaper and for several Democratic members of Congress in Washington, Bernstein earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. He practiced law in Philadelphia for six years, but eventually decided that the things he did in his spare time — writing and cartooning — were more fun.

So about five years ago, Bernstein turned his full attention to writing and cartooning. His weekly strip, "J.D.," runs in legal newspapers across the country. In addition to writing for magazines, Bernstein also helped author the second edition of "The Almanac of State Legislatures" and published a collection of his comic strips in book form.

The one change to Ivy football that Bernstein would like to see is the resurrection of a pre-World War II rule that barred coaches from calling plays from the sidelines. Bernstein notes that the idea was once suggested by the late Yale president (and baseball commissioner) A. Bartlett Giamatti. "The theory was that practices were like lectures, and games were like exams — so the point of the game was for the players to show off what they had learned during the rest of the week," he says. "I find something wonderful about putting that kind of responsibility on players. Of course, it will never happen."

Louis Jacobson '92

Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent with "National Journal" magazine.