Board Update: House Football

Posted: October 11, 2013

Board Update: October 11, 2013

Dear Lawrenceville Alumni and Parents,

A great institution like ours is built on traditions, and these traditions become a seminal part of students’ School experience. Some of you voiced a passionate response to the news about House football, and we have heard your concerns. We regret that this news took most of you by surprise, but the limited student interest presented us with no viable alternative this season.

The accommodations for this season reflect a series of issues and trends considered by the Board at its fall meetings. The question of House football, and House sports more broadly in this age of athletic specialization, was taken up by the Student Affairs Committee and the Committee of the Whole. At the latter meeting, after reviewing House football participation trends, hearing from a panel of faculty with extensive experience as House football coaches, and gathering the perspectives of trustees, we decided to create an ad hoc committee to consider ways to continue House tackle football or otherwise perpetuate the great tradition of House football. This committee will report its findings to the Administration and Board, and we will then report to the community-at-large.

As the ad hoc committee reviews the House football program, we invite you to contribute your suggestions to housefootball@lawrenceville.org. We appreciate your input and support.

Sincerely,

Tom Carter ‘70
President, Board of Trustees

Darrell Fitzgerald ‘68
Vice-President, Board of Trustees

Liz Duffy H’43
Head Master

September 16, 2013 Letter

Dear Lawrenceville Alumni, Parents and Friends,

As many of you have heard, late last week the School administration was forced to make a very difficult decision. We had to change House football – not discontinue it, but modify it to reflect a new reality.

This fall, of our six Circle Houses, three had House football rosters of only 13-14 students and three had rosters of only eight students (even after all the interscholastic teams made their cuts), rendering a six-team House “tackle” league unfeasible. Faced with this reality, the administration and the coaches, after considering myriad options, elected to modify the program for this season to a flag football format.

Participation in House football, as well as other House sports, has been on the decline for a number of years for reasons beyond our control. With colleges rewarding specialization in the admission process, we have seen increased pressure for “recruitable” athletes to play their major sport out of season; the School has responded by offering one-term exemptions to students if they play two interscholastic sports. This fall, 69 students are playing on our varsity and JV football teams, and we’re pleased to report that the varsity team is off to a strong start, having won its opening game against perennial football powerhouse Haverford last Friday evening.

Dwindling numbers have made it increasingly difficult for all the Houses to field full football rosters throughout the season. Last year, Dickinson had to end one game at the half and forfeit its final game, and other Houses played with few or no substitutes. Declining numbers and uneven physicality have made the league increasingly non-competitive and the coaches increasingly uncomfortable in their roles.

We had planned to discuss the future of House football at our fall Board meetings, October 10 and 11, and will do so in a few weeks, taking into consideration the many suggestions we have received from alumni. Unfortunately, this year’s low participation forced our hand this season before that broader conversation could occur. Please know that this was neither an easy decision, nor one lightly taken, but rather one made with both the welfare of Lawrenceville students and the long tradition of House “tackle” football in mind. Head Master Liz Duffy H’43 and her administration have found a solution that keeps the House football tradition alive, albeit changed.

Although participation in House football has waned, the allegiance and loyalty Lawrentians continue to have for their Houses is evident in the impassioned social media discussions, phone calls and emails. We are proud to be a part of such a vital and vocal community and thank you for your concern and commitment to this great institution.

Sincerely,

Thomas L. Carter, Jr. ’70, President, Board of Trustees
Elizabeth A. Duffy H’43, Head Master

Dear Lawrenceville Alumni, Parents and Friends,

Last Friday’s announcement of a change in the House Football program took most of you by surprise. But for those of us close to the program, the handwriting has been on the wall for several years. Head Master Liz Duffy H’43 and Board President Tom Carter ’70 P’01 ’05 have already presented the statistics supporting this decision. As Commissioner of the House Football league, I encourage you to read the letter below from Allen Fitzpatrick ’73 H’85 ’89 P’99 ’04, a 30-plus year veteran of the House Football coaching staff, who offers a deeper perspective on the change and on the significance of the House Football program.

J. Regan Kerney H’49 ’95 ’98 ’03

A Coach's View on House Football:

I have been coaching on Green Field since 1979 and have led teams in Woodhull, Cleve and Kennedy to championships. Some of my fondest memories and best teaching moments have happened there. All of us here understand and cherish what House Football has offered over time. But things change.

Recently I have been watching and sensing a gradual demise in the quality of the House Football experience. The disparity between teams and between individual players has been growing and last season one team had to forfeit its last game and stop another game at half-time. Playing teams that are a mismatch on Parents Weekend has been painful for several years now. This year I had 3 players at my first practice, 5 at my second one, and may now have 8 but two are already injured and we do not have pads yet. We cannot enter into a season of league play with so few players.

Let’s revisit some of the valuable lessons of HF and remember that not even School football offers the same ones. They are: overcoming fear, testing your limits, finding new resolve, sharing in the well-said “thrill of victory agony of defeat,” bonding with housemates, and getting to eat in the dining halls that evening with your opponent still in full sight. Plus, sophomores who are perhaps a little bit scared and on the bottom of the totem pole get to return as juniors, but really they get to be the “seniors” on a team – nowhere else here can this kind of lesson be felt. And seniors get to come back as coaches and fans of their teams, keeping the spirit even more alive. Much of this learning happens in games AND in practice. I used to have 20-24 boys at a practice. This allowed us to compete every day and go toe to toe in order to learn these valuable lessons frequently. With 8-10 players this can’t be done and we can’t go live in the week with other teams, either because you can’t afford injury or you can’t play the games.

Other changes are:

• Some kids across the country and the world come to us with less and less physical preparation. This could be an argument that we need it even more but it sets up a physical disparity on Green Field that makes many of us quite uncomfortable.

• Our interscholastic football team is in a very healthy state. I have always encouraged my good players to either leave the league as juniors or continue on the School team as seniors. A starter for me as a sophomore left the team his junior year and is now a captain of the varsity. Several other boys left the league this year and are on the School team. I even had a new boy this year show up for our first House practice and decide to go out for the School team after not attending preseason. Any current House football player can continue to play tackle football in the interscholastic program. But again, this will not replicate the House Football experience.

• The national climate with respect to concussion, brain development in young people, and the risks of football have changed. Boys who do not wish to play football are sometimes pressured into it by their peers. In the past this was somewhat acceptable, but knowing what we now know, it seems less so.

• Some kids are getting exemptions for one term of “School sports” in order to pursue greater depth in a chosen “first sport.”

• We continue to offer more and more options for kids who want to pursue other things.

Outdoor programs, dance, and managing a team remain viable and attractive options.

The bottom line is: we do not have enough boys to field a viable tackle league.

Flag football does not replicate House Football; it can’t, nothing can. But it can offer us a few things. If we adopt the NFL rules, it will be a dynamic game that requires EVERY player to have a role and an impact. As I told my team when the news broke, some things do not change. The team that cares the most, works the hardest and is the most creative in responding to the challenge at hand will be the most successful. These are, after all, some of the great lessons in all of sport.

Finally, you should know that our Athletic Director and Head Master fully understand the complexity of this issue. This is not an irrational, knee-jerk or callous response. Sometimes things are hard – but that too can be a good thing.

Respectfully, J. Allen Fitzpatrick ’73 H’85 ’89

Last Updated: January 4, 2014