One could say I was born into it. My grandpa was one of the first professors at Brown’s Medical School and as a result of his medical discoveries, Brown awarded him with an honorary doctorate. He was a huge Brown sports fan and as a faculty member, he received four tickets to every Brown home sporting event and attended even if there was snow or ice. When my dad was a young child, the family beagle ran away from home and found his way onto the Brown Stadium football field during a game and started eating the Brown bear’s dog food. This was when there was an actual bear on the sidelines.
As I was growing up, we lived close to Brown and my grandma, who we were always visiting, lived one block away from Brown Stadium. My grandpa passed away four years before I was born but school spirit for Brown stayed alive in our family. One of my earliest memories is when I was about five years old walking home from synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. My dad bought me a Brown football pennant from the souvenir stand outside the stadium. It was my reward for being good and sitting through services. This pennant made me just as happy as a new Barbie doll would. Brown football was something really special and I was proud to show my spirit.
Flash forward to August 2004. I was a newly arrived freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a recruited track and field athlete so I move in early. I received a financial aid package which included federal work-study, so one of my first tasks was to get a head start on finding a job before all of my classmates arrived. I thought the most fun job for me would be to work in the Department of Athletic Communications so I applied there. I was hired on the spot and was excited how accommodating they were for student-athletes. I could put my hours in for my office work in the early afternoon so I could just hop next door to Franklin Field for practice. Also I would have the honor and privilege of working every home football and basketball game plus other sports! I played basketball in high school and AAU and am a huge hoops fan. I would get to “work” at the Palestra?! The Cathedral of College Basketball?! So not only would I get to train every day at Franklin Field but I also get to work football games there! Man, am I lucky or what?! At one point during my first semester, my mom expressed that she was concerned that I might feel inadequate or insecure around my classmates because I “have to work.” “Mom, are you kidding me? All of my friends are jealous of my job,” I replied.
The communications aspect of sports was very different from 2004 through 2008 than it is today. We were so disconnected from the outside world. While working, we kept our flip phones locked away in the staff cabinet in the media room. What good would they be during the game? Our phones were for making and receiving phone calls and that was it. During basketball games we had two push button phones on the first row of press row. The work-study students would pick up the phone and answer, “Hello. This is the Palestra,” and would tell other schools the score of our game. It would be super exciting when from time to time a person from a news outlet would call and introduce themselves and ask for the score. We also had phone numbers of other schools and we would call and ask for the score. We would then hand the scores back one row to the announcer and he would make the announcement as “and now for scores around the Ivy League.”
If people wanted to know what was going on at the game besides the sporadic score updates, they had to be there. And everyone wanted to know what was going on at the game. The excitement surrounding the team was through the roof! There were no real time updates, no texting, Twitter, ESPN app, or web browsing on your phone. You were there, and that’s how you knew what was happening in real time.
Technology hadn’t yet made its major impact in dating and interpersonal relationships. Hundreds of Penn women wanted to date members of the football or men’s basketball team. It was a primary motivator for some of these women to attend football or men’s basketball games. Going to a game and dressing to impress was a way for them to get noticed by the objects of their affection. The women were decked out in their finest red and blue and looked like big fans. Texting was not commonly used. So people had to show up somewhere in the hopes of meeting someone or attempting communication.
While at games, I envied the alumni who came back dressed in their red and blue with their pom poms and accessories. I dreamed of being one of those alums who came back to support my alma mater in person. Donating money is nice but actually showing up in your school colors to cheer them on is a totally personal level way to connect. To me, seeing the pride and school spirit of people well into their 90s was what the Ivy League was about.
Now you can watch games online. You don’t need to be there. You can follow the score on Twitter and if you don’t have a subscription to ESPN+, you can watch video clips as you are following along on Twitter. That is great for accessibility and exposure. Don’t get me wrong. I love that. But it is killing the motivation for people to cheer on their team in person. That coupled with the soaring ticket prices, fans may be inclined to stay at home.
I’ve worked at a Harvard-affiliated hospital for almost 12 years now. I went to a local university for graduate school at night with fellow sleepy working professionals and I never felt connected to that institution or went to any of their games. Throughout my post-Penn years, I’ve attended games at Harvard, Brown and Penn whenever I can. My parents love coming to games whenever they can, especially my dad. Last year my parents met me at my home before we drove to watch the visiting Penn men’s lacrosse team take on Harvard. I stepped outside and my mom said, “You aren’t actually going dressed like that, are you?” “Yeah I am, when else do I get the opportunity to wear my super cool vintage Penn lacrosse jersey!” I replied.
Now that I’m a sports photographer in my “spare time,” I love the opportunity to regularly cover Ivy sports, especially Ivy hoops. I get to use my artistic eye to tell the story of the Ivy League and what it is about. The details of what happens beyond the action can be just as telling as the action itself. I also have the opportunity to travel to other campuses for events that I haven’t been to before. And I ask myself, “Where are the students?” Sure, I see student-athletes in the stands, but where is the general student body? And why aren’t they decked out in gear for their school? They are either indifferent or watching on their phone or checking the score every so often on Twitter and watching clips. But my sense is they are indifferent.
So this week I launched an Etsy shop with items such as hair bows I’ve made, hand-knit scarves I’ve made, and mascot photos I’ve taken to help increase school spirit for the Ivies.
When I wear my Red Sox logo skirt to Fenway Park, I get dozens of comments from admirers. “Where did you get that skirt? I would love one of those!” This shows me that sports spirit is alive and well. Ivy League nation, let’s get back to the days of packing the house and wearing accessories even if it is with just a touch of school colors to show our team that we support them. I dare you to be the wild fan in the stands donning your vintage jersey.
Erica Denhoff is an Ivy Hoops Online contributor.