By Jon Svenningsen
It’s 11 in the morning and drinks are already being served. Different friends are having different parties and pre-games—some even have their grills fired up. Everyone starts in different places or hops from one location to another, but no one wants to be too late for the big game… No, this is not Tufts’ Homecoming or Spring Fling, but a normal Saturday morning or early afternoon in the fall before a home football game at any number of big-name Division I football schools.
On January 20, the New York Times published “How Big Time Sports Ate College Life,” an article investigating the relationship between Division I athletics, money, fan involvement, and academic performance. This article generated a lot of interest among sports fans and in the blogosphere. It discusses several huge debates taking place in college sports—namely, the corrupting influence of money and the negative influence successful sports teams can have on fellow students at the university. These conclusions were not at all surprising, given stories I have heard from friends at major sports schools; still, the concepts were totally foreign to me as a Tufts student, considering I can count the campus sporting events I’ve attended on one hand.
Many Tufts students are fans of and almost everyone has at least one friend playing on a varsity team here, but Tufts is not known or chosen for its sports culture. Tufts does have an important athletic past, playing arguably the first true American football game against Harvard in 1875 (a 1-0 victory for the Jumbos), as well as playing Army in 1913, ending the athletic career of their star-halfback, future president Dwight Eisenhower. In recent memory, however, Tufts has not been a school known for fan passion or interest.
Today, the attendance of Tufts students at games is average or even below average compared to peer NESCAC schools. Our average attendance for football games this past season ranked seventh out of the 10 NESCAC schools that play football (Connecticut College does not have a football team), and 166th out of 234 total Division III schools. Men’s basketball seems to be similar—Tufts is pretty average for the NESCAC in terms of average attendance.
One sport in which we have had the highest attendance of the NESCAC is men’s lacrosse, which won the National Championship two years ago, pointing to a major factor in fan interest, team success. According to NESCAC Assistant Director Daniel Fischer, “Fan involvement can ebb and flow sometimes with how a team is performing—Middlebury being a prime example of that. The hottest ticket in town there now is for a men’s basketball game, when before the focus may have been more on ice hockey.” His comments point to a trend in NESCAC sports: there is a passionate group of friends and family who follow the teams closely, which grows to include students with less connections to the team as success increases.
As one professor put it when asked about the level of interest towards sports at Tufts, “At Duke it’s OK to paint your body blue. Not at Tufts; too much pain and suffering in the world.” The athletics department recently launched a new initiative called Fan the Fire that seeks to take advantage of this ethos, merging Tufts’ passion for active citizenship with athletic events. President Monaco trumpeted the initiative in his most recent email to the Tufts community.
Fan the Fire was proposed last year by Melissa Burke and Amanda Roberts as part of their senior capstone for the Communication and Media Studies minor. According to Burke, who currently runs the program, the aim of the project is to increase university awareness of athletics through the connection to active citizenship. “We decided that the best way to get the rest of the university to pay attention…was to promote the active citizenship piece of what teams are doing. Everyone at Tufts is very passionate about what they are involved in, but we found that the thing that everyone at Tufts believes strongly in is active citizenship. Thus, Fan the Fire: Spirit, Sports, Service was born.” These events tie into the causes that many teams support, such as the men’s ice hockey team and breast cancer awareness, or women’s soccer and their mentorship of an eight-year old cancer survivor from Brockton.
While there have only been three Fan the Fire events so far, they have been successful in bringing more fans to games, as well as raising awareness for team causes (and giving out free t-shirts). These events will continue to be used by the university and the athletics department to raise awareness for sports. According to Athletics Director Bill Gehling, Tufts athletics are “the best kept secret around, with good teams that are fun to watch… If we can get people to the games, they will see how exciting they are and will come back in the future.” He envisions Fan the Fire becoming a major face of Tufts athletics, and he hopes to create partnerships with service-based groups like the Leonard Carmichael Society, “groups that are interested in similar things—a sort of synergy. Everyone at Tufts will benefit if there is more spirit around athletics and active citizenship.”
Tufts students will continue to be divided on the role of campus sports and whether or not our lack of school spirit in terms of athletics is a problem. We all chose to come to the school knowing full well what the athletic situation is and will likely continue to be—a facet of the school that will always be second to education. While major sports schools are engaged in debates over the serious ethical problem of earning money on the backs of student-athletes, as well as scandals like what happened at Penn State, Tufts Athletics instead focuses on building partnerships with community service to increase both athletic spirit and active citizenry. With such an ethos, we can all be proud to be Jumbos.