Jaison Zachariah ’13 drops back for a pass in a 2012 sprint football game against Franklin Pierce.
John O’Neill ’13
Administrators cite concerns about safety, competitiveness

Last November, Princeton sprint football looked poised to end its 105-game losing streak in league contests. With a season-high 36 points on the scoreboard, the Tigers led Chestnut Hill by 16 points early in the fourth quarter. But Princeton’s fortunes took a downward turn. The Tigers’ defense gave up two touchdowns, and the visiting Griffins pulled ahead with two minutes remaining, returning a fumble 85 yards for a touchdown.

It would be the final game for the sprint football program, which dates back to the early 1930s. On April 11, the University announced that it had discontinued the sport due to concerns about player safety and the team’s competitiveness, following a review by athletics staff, University administrators, athletic medical staff, coaches, and sprint football alumni.

“We regret having to take this action, but we do not believe we can sustain the program at a level that is safe for our students and meets the high standards we achieve in the rest of our varsity athletics program,” President Eisgruber ’83 said in a University news release.

Sprint football, formerly known as lightweight football, requires players to stay below a weight limit of 172 pounds, and to fill its roster, the team often needs to recruit current students with no prior football experience.

Donations to the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football have kept the program afloat in the last two decades, and alumni often have argued that a few admission spots each year could make a notable difference in the team’s results. The best support for this idea comes from the 2012 season, when the Tigers’ roster included four former players from the varsity team. That year, Princeton lost half of its eight games by a touchdown or less and came tantalizingly close to ending the losing streak in a 32-29 overtime loss to Post.

But according to the news release, “University officials concluded that it was not possible to increase the overall number of recruited athletes and that it could not transfer the number of positions needed to achieve appropriate levels of safety and competitiveness in the sprint program without jeopardizing the sports from which the positions would have to be taken.” 

Ralph Wright ’88, a former player and coach, has been disappointed by the lack of admission support for the team. “Princeton does everything well, and this program they starved and allowed to flounder for 20 years,” he said.

P.J. Chew ’95, the president of the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football from 1999 to 2012 and a former captain, said that the program believed it was “doing everything right” to move in a positive direction. Sprint football earned awards for high alumni participation in the annual Tiger Athletics Give Day fundraiser in 2014 and 2015. The team also paid close attention to player safety, Chew said, thanks to head coach Sean Morey, a former NFL player whose career was cut short by concussions.

“Talking to the current players, they feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under them,” Chew said.

The Tigers’ poor showing on the field stood out in an athletics department that annually leads the Ivy League in championships. But the team’s resilience also inspired some admiration, on the campus and beyond. In 2012, Phil Taylor wrote a Sports Illustrated column about the team, titled “Losing Isn’t Everything.”

“Egos are smaller in sprint football, just like the players, the crowds and, in Princeton’s case, the roster,” Taylor wrote. “The Tigers have only 32 players, about half the number of some of their opponents … . Given those limitations, it’s not surprising that the Tigers are on a bit of a losing streak: 12 straight without a win. Not games. Seasons.”

Despite Princeton’s decline, the Collegiate Sprint Football League has been growing in the last seven seasons, adding five new teams from small colleges — Mansfield, Post, Franklin Pierce, Chestnut Hill, and Caldwell. With Princeton’s departure, only two Ivy schools still field teams, Penn and Cornell. They are joined by Army and Navy, two perennial powers in the league.

For the record

An earlier version of this story misidentified fomer Friends of Princeton Sprint Football president P.J. Chew ’95.