GRINNELL, Iowa — Professors have asked Max Hill if he is O.K. David Taylor has received hugs from classmates and workers in the dining hall. Rick Johnson has been wondering why he is suddenly hungry when he is studying at night, before realizing he ate dinner early, at 5 p.m., a time when he used to be at football practice.
Then there is the empty football stadium they walk past.
The three seniors, along with their Grinnell College teammates and coaches, began getting used to a new normal last week: life without football.
In the midst of another desultory season and with barely enough healthy players to field a team, Grinnell announced last week that it had canceled the remaining seven games on its schedule out of concern for the welfare of its players.
The players voted overwhelmingly to end the season as a protest of what they saw as a consistent lack of support from the administration, something the players say has contributed to the team starting each of the last four seasons with fewer than 40 players, less than half of most opponents on their schedule. After a series of injuries, the team was down to 28 healthy players last week.
One player called the decision a cry for help.
“We’ve all had that ‘hoo-rah’ mentality where this is our year, we’ll change it,” said Taylor, a lithe receiver from Mount Vernon, Iowa. “But it’s come down to where we’re fighting a losing battle, and we know it. This is our tipping point, and we really just want to see change. We’re sacrificing our senior season for it.”
The place of football in America’s cultural landscape is increasingly in doubt as the the sport reckons with the effects of brain trauma and participation declines at the youth level. Things are no different at Grinnell, a small, exclusive liberal arts college that plays on the Division III level, where there are no athletic scholarships.
The school draws its approximately 1,700 students from around the United States and beyond to a quaint campus in central Iowa. The question of what to do with football led to soul-searching long before the players convened a vote.
Raynard S. Kington, the college’s president since 2010, has a doctorate in public health and last year brought in an epidemiologist to examine whether a smaller roster might expose players to greater risk of injury. (The conclusion: It probably did.)
Kington has kept a keen eye on the Ivy League’s efforts to make the game safer, such as banning tackling during in-season practices. He also notes that as fewer children play football, highly educated families have disproportionately rejected the sport, making it harder to recruit players who fit Grinnell’s academic profile.
And while Kington says that, in recent years, Grinnell has provided more resources for football — mostly by hiring two full-time assistants, including a recruiting coordinator — the school still lags behind its peers. Grinnell has eight coaches, five of whom are full-time, nearly half that of St. Norbert College, a fellow Midwest Conference member that has 14. The players say the weight room is not big enough to accommodate the whole team at once.
Though Grinnell’s football history runs deep — it is believed to have played the first college game west of the Mississippi River, a 24-0 victory over Iowa in 1889 — the Pioneers have not had a winning season since 2010. They had lost 30 of their previous 33 games before this season was called off.
Grinnell plans to play football again next season with a roster of about 45 players, but Kington has not offered a firm commitment about the sport’s future.
“Our current plan is to have a team, and we’re going to do everything we can,” he said, adding: “But we’re aware of these constraints. We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be easy. And we also know that we’re going to constantly pay attention to what’s around us.”
Grinnell might turn its gaze to Occidental College, a Division III school in Los Angeles. Occidental cut short its football season two years ago because its roster had shrunk to 31 players and the team had no one to play left tackle. The college considered dropping the sport, but it embarked on a campaign to raise $1.1 million over four years, and football returned last season. The team has lost 10 of its 12 games since, but the roster has climbed to 61 players.
“It wasn’t smart for us to continue, but it was devastating” to stop playing in 2017, said Rob Cushman, the coach at Occidental. The school made its decision over the objection of the players.
“We are in much better shape, but we’re certainly not recovered yet,” Cushman said. “I’m proud that we’re competing, but we still have a ways to go to become a competitive small college program.”
Attracting good players who meet rigorous academic standards is one thingin Southern California. It is quite different in a small town in Iowa farm country.
Grinnell has long called itself “the jewel of the prairie,” but a more apt description might be an island. Two businesses that bookend the town — the gun supply store Brownells and the chemical agricultural giant Monsanto — belie what sits between them: a liberal-minded college with a student body that has twice as many foreign students as ones from Iowa and that emphasizes student participation in school decision-making.If some of the school’s neighbors subsist on the vagaries of the corn and soybean market, Grinnell does not. It sits on a $2 billion endowment built partly on the stock-picking advice of Warren Buffett.
The football team on a campus like this is not its own ecosystem.
The team does provide an emblem of racial, ethnic, cultural and economic diversity in a way that few campus groups can. The football players are also generally more conservative politically and more practical in their choice of majors than the student body at large, said Andy Hamilton, the athletic director.
“That diversity can be described in a lot of ways,” he said.
As Johnson, Hill and Taylor sat around a coffee table in an athletic department conference room last week, they emphasized that football was just part of their identity.
Taylor, who is majoring in economics and theater, spent a semester studying marine life on a remote Caribbean island and has interned at Marvel Studios in Hollywood.
Hill, a small but powerfully built receiver who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, is studying politics with a concentration on statistics and spent a semester observing housing in the slums of São Paulo, Brazil, and Cape Town.
And Johnson, a sturdy linebacker from Davenport, Iowa, is majoring in economics and studio art. He studied in Rome last spring and spent the summer working on a Grinnell tribute to Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who was killed last year in a case that played into wider national debate about immigration.
What the players want is to have as rich an experience on the field as off it.
“What we’re saying is: Invest as much as you’re doing in academics or internships with football,” Hill said.
Any hope that this season might have been different evaporated quickly. Grinnell lost to its opener to Lawrence University, 28-0, and the next week was routed at Lake Forest, 44-0.
With an open week, the six seniors on the team met to discuss their circumstances: Three players were lost to season-ending injuries, another half-dozen were out for the near term, and their depth chart had only one backup for each position group except quarterback. They could not practice against a scout team because there weren’t enough players for a scout team.
Still, the seniors decided they would pour everything in to their next game, a home matchup against Macalester College that they thought could be competitive.
It was not. Grinnell lost, 42-3.
The seniors told their coach, Jeff Pedersen, that they would meet that Sunday to discuss whether they should go on. The next game was to be played at St. Norbert, which pummeled Grinnell last season, 91-0. And the one after that was against Monmouth College, which thumped Grinnell last year, 55-0.
The seniors found that many other players had the same concerns. After a discussion, they called for a vote. Only a handful thought they should go on.
“Football is the type of sport that if one person wants to do it, you have to have the same mind-set,” Taylor said. “You can’t just go into the game thinking I’m going to half-ass it. It’s a band of brothers. If we went to St. Norbert’s, I’m confident in us playing the game. I’m not confident in all 28 guys remaining healthy.”
Added Hill: “It’s kamikaze.”
They let Pedersen know, and the next day, the athletic director met with the school president. The following day, the college announced it was ending the season.
The players, though, were angered that the school’s news release did not mention that it was their decision not to play. The release was amended later, and Kington, in an interview, expressed his support of the players and said their voice should have been included in the initial statement. (Pedersen declined to comment, saying he wanted to allow the players to tell their story.)
It has been discomfiting for the players not to go to practice, head to the weight room en masse or play on Saturdays. For Johnson, who has been playing football since he was 8, and many of his teammates, these are the rhythms of the fall.
But they all end some day.
Johnson has a younger brother on the team and another in high school who hopes to be, and to him, the decision to quit was a worthy sacrifice for all of those who might return next season and perhaps beyond.
Less certain, though, is whether it will make a difference.