Why Football was a Four Letter Word at Hendrix and Now it’s a Cause for Celebration…Sort Of

WaPo Football
(Kurt Voigt/ Associated Press )

The Washington Post ran an article about Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Arkansas starting Division III football. Hendrix College, according to the longtime education editor of the New York Times in his posthumously published book, Colleges That Change Lives, casts a long distinguished shadow across the national academic horizon in American. I was president of Hendrix College for twelve years, just recently taking a sabbatical in February 2013. While there, I aspired to be an agent of change – giving it a distinctive brand, national visibility, and making it a destination college. So why add D-III football to my ambitions? How cliché! Not really. I grew the student body by over 43% and the faculty by over 35%. I grew net revenue by over 52% and the percentage of out of state students by some 40% – all while bringing the student body to higher and higher levels of quality. Over my entire time at Hendrix (17 years), I built the sports facilities and oversaw or directly raised the funds for some 16 buildings. With the faculty, I developed and implemented one of the most innovative academic programs in the United States called The Odyssey. I built a 100 acre TND Village Real Estate Development next to campus designed as a mixed commercial/residential use development with DPZ designers for 600 dwellings. I brought the first roundabouts to Arkansas with a new state boulevard. I built a labyrinth and used the talents of renowned New Yorker Christopher Janney to build a Harmonic Fugue. I even changed the mascot and added three new sports. But in the spring of 2007 when I suggested at a faculty meeting that we should consider bringing back football as a D-III sport, I had no idea that I was goring a scared ox and that therein would ensue a four year all out war. One that in part would lead to the need for “new leadership on campus.” I appointed consultants and a community wide taskforce to lead a yearlong campus discussion of the matter. The community wide taskforce was broadly representative and chaired by a trustee and a senior faculty member. Some of the arguments against having football at Hendrix were sound. All of them were addressed by the Board of Trustee’s to my satisfaction except one and, on this last objection, I made a suggested compromise solution that has not been implemented. This op-ed is a plea that one day that concern will be addressed. The arguments against bringing football back to Hendrix fell into certain camps. I will only summarize:

  • Having football would change the Hendrix culture or brand: wrong. Empirical tests showed 33% and higher of prospective D-III football players we surveyed were more social/politically progressive than Hendrix first-year students and just as brainy.
  • Not having football was a positive part of the Hendrix brand: wrong. In other words, the argument is that students attended Hendrix because we did not have football or would not attend if we had the sport. Empirical tests showed on a post hoc basis that many currently enrolled students and that some younger alumni regarded not having football as a virtue (having drank the kool aid), but at the point of decision prospective students who had not yet enrolled or who were making application did not care or were unaware that we did not have the sport. The absence of Greek Life and fraternities, however, was a positive difference in our brand.
  • Having football would make Hendrix appear less academic in a state and region obsessed with football: wrong. This was a misunderstanding of D-III non-athletic scholarship sports vs. D-I big time sports. Arkansas had never seen D-III football. When the University of Chicago and Washington University joined our conference I think people were surprised. Look around at D-III schools: Washington and Lee, Sewanee, Amherst, Williams, Grinnell, and for heavens sake Oberlin. Kids from these schools are off for the Nobel Prize after college football, not the NFL.
  • Hendrix could gain greater marginal net revenue by doing something else other than football like Ultimate Frisbee or Paint Ball: True, in a way. Dr. Pete Gess who pointed this out was right, but D-III football is a NCAA sport with a huge little league.
  • The Hendrix Board did the right thing. It decided to add football to bring balance in our gender ratios, add net revenue, grow the student population, add somewhat to the diversity of the mix of the student body, and truth be told the percentage of males attending college and particularly small liberal arts colleges in this country is and has been in sharp decline for the last decade. This is a national crisis.

Now to my final point: I am pleased beyond words at how football at Hendrix College has been accepted and is being celebrated by most. There may be 3,000 people at the opening game! However, as President of Hendrix College on Sabbatical there is one issue that still haunts me after five years of leading the way to bring football back to Hendrix. That issue is the matter of concussions and closed head brain injuries. Many times during these debates the issue of helmeted sports and concussions were brought up. But through my research I discovered that the greater percentage of concussions and closed head brain injuries were sustained not in football, but in women’s soccer and in other women’s sports like women’s lacrosse only then followed by football. We searched the country for an answer and I believe found one. I suggested to the SAA and our Board that the entire conference, for every sport and every athlete, adopt X2 Impact, a wireless technology that measures each student athlete’s g force exposure and the telemetry of that exposure in real time. This would be sent to the sideline to a server, to the athletic facility for storage, and then to one of two medical centers in our conference at Washington University or at the University of Chicago. If a student athlete in a practice exceeded a g force maximum then a he/she would have to stop play, if he/she exceeded a maximum over a season he/she would have to stop for the rest of the season, and if he/she exceeded a lifetime maximum he/she would be disqualified form participating any longer in conference play. We do not yet know what the lifetime maximum threshold g force exposure causes permeate brain damage over the long term. But I believe that even if we set arbitrary figures based on what we know it would change how kids use their heads and play the games. D-III is the best place to start this because we care about brains over brawn. Stanford, Notre Dame, and Cal Poly Tech are all three using X 2 Impact now in longitudinal studies, but it will be years before we have answers. I firmly believe the NIH should fund all D-III conferences willing to adopt this policy. It would change how we play certain sports, set an example for K-12 sports, and more importantly perhaps save some of our best brains for the future.

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