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, before their fortunes took a downward turn. The defense gave up two touchdowns, allowing Chestnut Hill to tie the game, and with two minutes remaining, the visiting Griffins pulled ahead, returning a fumble 85 yards for a touchdown.
It would be the final loss 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, 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 or 150-pound football, requires players to stay below a weight limit of 172 pounds, and to fill its roster, the team often recruited current students with no prior football experience.
Donations to the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football had 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 came 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, the University “concluded that it was not possible to increase the overall number of recruited athletes” or transfer positions from other sports without affecting the competitiveness of those teams.
Ralph Wright ’88, a former player and coach, has been disappointed by the lack of admission support. “Princeton does everything well, and this program they starved and allowed to founder 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 participants in the program believed they were “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 Collegiate Sprint Football League has been growing in recent years, adding five new teams from small colleges to a group that included longstanding programs at Army, Cornell, Navy, and Penn. But even against the newcomers, Princeton struggled to compete.
While the Tigers’ poor showing on the field stood out in an athletics department that annually leads the Ivy League in championships, the team’s resilience also inspired admiration, on the campus and beyond. In 2012, Phil Taylor wrote a Sports Illustrated column about the program. It was titled “Losing Isn’t Everything.”