Princeton’s 2021-22 intramural water polo team jumps into the pool.
Courtesy of Princeton University Campus Recreation

Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano. (Pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.) — Satire X, Juvenal, c. 125 A.D.

The truly surprising consideration may be what students didn’t do during Princeton’s first century. Since they were here to become fine, genteel Presbyterian gentlemen if not clergymen (trust me, ladies, you’ll be glad you were left out of this one…), they were required to attend chapel daily, behave like saints in their own drafty cells dorm rooms, and endure endless recitations. And they were encouraged to spend copious time with their chosen debating society — this was the era when Whig and Clio were more dominant than any extracurricular activity, ever. In the spirit of this goody two-shoes version of in loco parentis, the national political unrest that led to college insurrection across the country in the first decade of the 19th century found instant sympathy, culminating in the Riot of 1807, which involved half the senior class being permanently thrown out because three students were out late drinking. If that sentence doesn’t scan very easily, it’s still less insane than the other behavioral regulations beyond the uprising. Students looking to let off steam would hit balls up against the president’s house — they were fined. Students played stickball or similar games on Cannon Green — they were quashed because they might catch cold. They couldn’t hire a sleigh because they might go drinking in it. They tipped over an outhouse and were expelled. Petty punishments and physical restrictions (of 18-year-olds) were ubiquitous.

Philip Lindsley 1804, fascinatingly not an American but an English scion, learned something by undergoing this — beginning as a Princeton tutor in 1807 and eventually as a vice president in 1817, he evolved an education philosophy including competitive exercise, based around European and classical Greek and Roman ideas to “enter into manhood… with the strength of Hercules and the wisdom of Minerva.” We know this from his groundbreaking term as president of the University of Nashville, beginning in 1825. At Princeton, meanwhile, president Ashbel Green 1783 added more Sunday schools, and Bible and tract societies. His successor in 1822, the relatively laid-back James Carnahan 1800, eventually began to tire of repressing boys from being boys, then after John Maclean 1816 became vice president in 1829 the students were even able to set aside a spare field for cricket and ball playing. Maclean ascended to the presidency at long last in 1854, and in 1859 the students were allowed to finance a gym (Maclean and some faculty chipped in, but not the trustees), 2,000 square feet of wooden barn glory. Six years later, there was a rumor of a tramp with yellow fever sleeping there, so somebody burned it down. 

Following this rather severe setback in our tale, let’s switch viewpoints to an era where some intramural sports can now be played on your PS5 or your smartphone (useful in a pandemic). Admittedly more oriented to Minerva than Hercules in this instance, we raise the issue not for the concern of impact on campus health, but to indicate the degree to which letting off steam via participatory intramural competition has long since permeated the fabric of campus. In James Axtell’s authoritative 2006 history of the University in the 20th century, The Making of Princeton University, his meticulous research yields some fascinating ideas surrounding our now longstanding focus on athletics, including the possibility that participatory opportunities are so popular they have undercut the live student fanbase of varsity teams and the band. And while his data otherwise flows copiously, Axtell notes the number of intramural teams at “c. 600” — one of the few uses of circa in the 600-page book — with no citation and the thinly-veiled hope there will not be a request for one. When you consider that amounts to one intramural team per eight students, including the 800 or so varsity athletes, you can sympathize.  

Given the ubiquity of the intramural experience to the student days of just about every alum reading this in 2023, it’s a bit embarrassing we haven’t stopped by to give it a thorough once-over long before now. Like student-guided campus tours and Hoagie Haven, I suppose intramurals are such an endemic part of the furniture we just take them for granted and instead concentrate on the flashy decorations with which they’re surrounded. The phrase “thorough once-over” also points to the challenges of researching an entire century of continually changing mixes of established and improvisational sports — the soccer vs. dodgeball vs. blow pong vs. Mario Kart conundrum, if you will — and the paucity of hard data beyond scattered entries in class reunion books citing conflicting results, not to mention absent rules for mysterious events now lost to history.

So we really owe this evocative backstory to Alfred D’Alessandro ’76, a perspicacious reader and Faithful Historian. He wrote requesting backup information on PAW’s list of Most Influential Alums, and having been supplied it, had one of those “by the way” momentary flashes. Said the curious D’Alessandro:

“I have another question that may not be so easy but perhaps you can float this to see if anyone might know.

Back in the 1970s, the clubs used to play a unique brand of intra-mural flag football. I suspect the tradition went back many years before then. In this version, forward passes were allowed anywhere on the field. Meaning the quarterback could run ten yards past the line of scrimmage and then decide to make a forward pass. Similarly, a receiver could catch a pass downfield, turn and run forward and make another forward pass downfield. Etc.

Anyway, this style of football had a name. And I can’t remember it. Would be very helpful and most appreciated if someone down there could help me out with this one. Thank you for your best efforts on this.”

So how hard could it be? 

Well, in 1970 there was no such thing, I knew that. And it sounds very similar to Ultimate Frisbee, a thriving club sport and intramural for decades, so there’s that. But this? I decided to run it by a few friends from the early ’70s. The following wisdom arose:

  • Blow pong is/was a beloved sport that during this era had separate men’s and women’s teams. The reason for this apparently relates not to the game, but to the penalties associated with losing. [Think # of red beer cups]
  • Pool was a great intramural favorite (not the Dillon Pool kind, the green-felt pool table kind).
  • Just to be fair to actual athletes, there was an intramural swim meet in Dillon Pool. 
  • Regular flag football had a dedicated intramural following, as it does today.
  • Intramural wrestling was traditional, but participation was spotty. Some recruits volunteered in the hope their weight class would otherwise be empty; remorse ensued.
  • The intramural horseshoes championship was hard-fought and highly prestigious.
  • Although the blow pong leagues were separated by gender, intramural field hockey was co-ed. Discuss.
  • Tiger Inn won the intramural chess championship in 1979. [Pause to reflect]
  • Street hockey was already big, and continues today.
  • And at long last, somebody stopped playing blow pong long enough to recall they did play D’Alessandro’s touch football variant, not in an intramural league but in grudge matches between a cappella singing group teams. It’s a real thing, and goes by the name of Razzle Dazzle, with online citations even in the 21st century. It’s possible the high number of rules — 14 — may have been an impediment to its catching on as a long-term intramural sport.

In 1903, Princeton built University Gym, the largest of its kind in the country. By 1907, the junior and senior classes used it to establish dormitory-based basketball championships. By 1915 (the first use of the term “intramural”) over half the student body was involved in various on-campus sports competitions. Shooting was an intramural sport in the ’20s. In 1928, Whig and Clio threw in the towel and combined their 150-year-old operations under the onslaught of multitudinous other extracurriculars. In the ’30s intramural track and boxing became highly popular. Reorganized after the war, intramurals in the ’50s featured pistol and rifle shooting, billiards and pool, table tennis and the first inroads of bridge. By 1965, 62 percent of the upperclassmen played at least one intramural sport. Broomball, 3x3 basketball, and backgammon were ensconced by the ’80s. Basketball, always the favorite intramural sport, spun off free throw and slam dunk contests; bowling has popped up now and again; foosball appeared; less likely events such as home run derby and inner tube water polo have had their day in the sun; kickball and (just for balance) Roshambo arose on the scene. Dodgeball grew relentlessly to become a 21st-century fixation.

Which is to say that any activity incorporating pole vaulting, free throws and rock/paper/scissors across a century is somewhat difficult to nail down. This is the ultimate (no, not that Ultimate) example of anecdotal history. So what we need here in the final paragraph is your favorite story about your favorite intramural event. Just click below; fire when ready.