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Football: Not just an Ivy League
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"