Football season arrives — at some collegesBy Rich Preheim
School has started. Before long the leaves will turn and the temperature drop. In short, it’s football season. With its traditions and pageantry, football is the quintessential college sport. But not everywhere. Only three of the seven U.S. Mennonite colleges play the game.
Bethel and Bluffton, both originally affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church, have had football teams since soon after their founding — but not without plenty of controversy.
Their struggles reflected the tensions between acculturation and nonconformity within their constituencies. When Bethel and Bluffton students pushed for football, school and church leaders often tried to hold the line against a sport many considered violent and worldly.
At Bluffton, the board dropped football in 1913. Student pressure finally prompted the board to approve a trial game in 1921. Bluffton triumphed over the University of Toledo 22-0, with future Bluffton President Lloyd Ramseyer called the star of the game. Two years later the sport was back for good, although it prompted one board member to resign in protest.
Bethel never prohibited football, but school officials were vigilant. The faculty ruled in 1901 that the game could be played only under certain conditions, including “no running with the ball.”
Tabor College, affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren, was forced into adopting football in 1967. Tabor began intercollegiate athletic competition in 1944 and was soon playing basketball, baseball, soccer (the first Kansas college to do so) and track and field.
But by the mid-1960s scheduling became a problem without conference affiliation. While other schools had regular games with other teams in their conferences, the Bluejays were forced to search far and wide for opponents.
So Tabor applied to join the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference, which included Bethel and McPherson College, a Church of the Brethren school. The KCAC would accept Tabor on the condition that it start a varsity football program. The Bluejays were granted membership in 1967 and in 1969 fielded their first team on the gridiron.
For the GC and MB schools, the problem was football, not athletics in general. Sports such as baseball and tennis were acceptable. That was in contrast with the Mennonite Church, which maintained a more distinct line of separation from the world.
M.T. Brackbill, longtime physics professor at Eastern Mennonite University, packed his tennis racket when he moved to start his position in 1918, only to discover upon arrival that tennis was not allowed.
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