Phi Beta Football Foibles

KAZOn November 24, 1951, Princeton defeated Dartmouth, 13-0, to win its 22nd straight football game and complete a second consecutive undefeated season for what was described, by the great writer John McPhee, as “Phi Beta Football.” In those days, Princeton still used a then-old, direct snap, pure power offense called the single wing even though most college teams were “mating the quarterback to the center of the line in the formation called ‘T.’” It was also the final game for Princeton tailback and legend Dick Kazmaier, the “Maumee Menace,” a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee and McPhee’s roommate. “Kaz” had been pictured on the cover of Time magazine that week (right) and would soon win the Heisman Trophy (the last Ivy League player to do so) in a landslide. But the game that day is not primarily remembered as having capped off an outstanding season and a brilliant career.

Instead, the legacy of that brisk late autumn afternoon contest rests upon two seemingly unrelated matters: allegations of intentionally dirty play by Dartmouth and our inability to perceive reality with any degree of objective accuracy, especially where we have a major emotional investment. Based upon various sources, the primary narrative from the game is that Dartmouth set out to injure Princeton players – particularly Kazmaier – and that after the Princeton star was injured and forced from the game in the second quarter, matters turned increasingly fractious. But that wasn’t the only proffered narrative.

The contest was an extremely physical one. At least 12 players were injured and had to be helped off the field, including a Dartmouth player who suffered a broken leg. Kazmaier was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a broken nose and a concussion. His injury came on an apparent late hit after he had completed a pass to the three-yard line to set-up Princeton’s first touchdown. Kazmaier was able to walk to the dressing room, but his teammates said he could remember nothing of the game. Princeton players alleged that Dartmouth had set-out intentionally to injure Kazmaier, a charge that Dartmouth’s coach and players all vehemently denied. The ensuing controversy was the subject of considerable press coverage both locally and nationally, with the major issue being whether Dartmouth has set out to knock Kazmaier out of the game, causing events to take an even uglier turn.

In one reporter’s words, “Throughout the often unpleasant afternoon, there was undeniable evidence that the losers’ tactics were the result of an intentional style of play….” The thrust of the allegation was, as one Princeton player put it, that “Dartmouth was out to get” Kazmaier. Another Tiger player added, “I am completely disgusted with the whole ball game and with the Dartmouth brand of football.” The situation became ugly enough that, even after winning, Princeton coach Charley Caldwell refused to shake hands with his Dartmouth counterpart. Moreover, the claim wasn’t a new one. The New Yorker, the magazine that would later make McPhee famous, had referred to the Big Green that season as the “Eastern Boxing Champions,” and allowed that opposition stars regularly left the field under sudden and violent circumstances when playing the boys from Hanover.

Naturally, various partisans had dramatically different accounts of what transpired. The Daily Princetonian said, “It was a rough game — it was a brutal game. It was a game which left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. It was the kind of football exhibition which discredits the game of football. For many persons the name Dartmouth sank to an all-time low — they just couldn’t stomach the Indians’ brand of football.” The student reporter was careful to claim reason as supporting his argument.

“This observer has never seen quite such a disgusting exhibition of so- called ‘sport.’ Both teams were guilty but the blame must be laid primarily on Dartmouth’s doorstep…. Princeton, obviously the better team, had no reason to rough up Dartmouth. Looking at the situation rationally, we don’t see why the Indians should make a deliberate attempt to cripple Dick Kazmaier or any other Princeton player. The Dartmouth psychology, however, is not rational itself.”

Not surprisingly, the Dartmouth student paper took a somewhat different viewpoint and maintained that rationality resided in New Hampshire rather than New Jersey.

“Dick Kazmaier of Princeton admittedly is an unusually able football player. Many Dartmouth men traveled to Princeton, not expecting to win – only hoping to see an All-American in action. Dick Kazmaier was hurt in the second period, and played only a token part in the remainder of the game. For this, spectators were sorry…. Medical authorities have confirmed that as a relatively unprotected passing and running star in a contact sport, he is quite liable to injury. Also, his particular injuries – a broken nose and slight concussion – were no more serious than is experienced almost any day in any football practice, where there is no more serious stake than playing the following Saturday. Up to the Princeton game, Dartmouth players suffered about 10 known nose fractures and face injuries, not to mention several slight concussions.

“Did Princeton players feel so badly about losing their star? They shouldn’t have. During the past undefeated campaign they stopped several individual stars by a concentrated effort, including such mainstays as Frank Hauff of Navy, Glenn Adams of Pennsylvania and Rocco Calvo of Cornell.

“In other words, the same brand of football condemned by the Prince – that of stopping the big man – is practiced quite successfully by the Tigers.”

Dartmouth coach Tuss McLaughrey offered his own counter: “We have never by word, inference, or innuendo ever made any plans to win a football game by illegal play or by an attempt to put a key player out of the game. The charges from Princeton that Dartmouth made a deliberate attempt to injure Kazmaier or any other member of the team are outrageous and almost too ridiculous to be commented upon.” Carefully parsed, however, McLaughery’s rejoinder may be passionate, but it isn’t quite a denial.

The second part of that afternoon’s legacy comes from the work of psychologists Albert H. Hastorf (who had earned his Ph.D. at Princeton but taught at Dartmouth) and Hadley Cantril (who had done his undergraduate work at Dartmouth but taught at Princeton). Both were fascinated by the differing perceptions of the game and set out to explore them. Their subsequent paper, published as They Saw A Game: A Case Study in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1954 (Volume 49, Issue 1, pp. 129-134), is now a classic study in selective perception and cognitive bias.

To perform their research, Hastorf and Cantril administered a questionnaire to groups of students at each school a week after the game that was, according to the study, “designed to get reactions to the game and to learn something of the climate of opinion in each institution.” They then showed a film of the game to undergraduates from each school and had the students record on a second questionnaire, as they watched the game, whenever they thought there had been rules infractions by the teams and whether these infractions were “mild” or “flagrant.” As it turned out, the surveyed students were as divided about the game as their newspapers had been.

Nearly all the Princeton students characterized the game as “rough and dirty,” one of the response options provided by the psychologists. None of the Princeton students characterized it as “clean and fair” and nearly 90 percent of them viewed Dartmouth as the instigator of the dirty play. Princeton students further thought that Dartmouth had committed twice as many penalties as did the Dartmouth students, who thought both teams had committed about the same number of infractions.

Although a plurality of Dartmouth students thought the game had been “rough and dirty,” more than 10 percent characterized it as “clean and fair” and more than one-third inserted their own terminology into the mix, seeing the game as having been “rough and fair.” As to blame, over half of the Dartmouth students saw both sides as being in the wrong while only about one-third of them put the blame primarily on their team. These variations in perception were so large that Hastorf and Cantril insightfully described the students from each school as having seen a “different” game.

Fascinatingly, the psychologists report that after the Dartmouth alumni office sent a copy of that day’s game film to an alumni group in the Midwest for showing at an alumni function that winter, one of the group’s leaders previewed the film and sent an alarmed telegram back to Dartmouth because he couldn’t see what all the fuss in the press had been about. He didn’t see where the Dartmouth players had done anything wrong at all.

“Preview of Princeton movies indicates considerable cutting of important part please wire explanation and possibly air mail missing part before showing scheduled for January 25 we have splicing equipment.”

As Hastorf and Cantril noted, “We behave according to what we bring to the occasion, and what each of us brings to the occasion is more or less unique.” What partisans noticed and remembered was largely based upon which school they were affiliated with and which team they wanted to win. Accordingly, “the data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ The game ‘exists’ for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose.” Relative to dispassionate reporting and objective analysis, therefore, rationality resided neither at Princeton or Dartmouth.

Behavioral finance – the conjunction of academic finance and behavioral science – is a relatively new field of formal study, dating back only to the 1990s. But its antecedents go back to the 1950s and psychological research like that of Hastorf and Cantril. Behavioral science has since uncovered an enormous list of behavioral biases, cognitive errors and heuristics that greatly impact our decision-making and belief-formation processes, rarely for the better. But nobody who has avidly supported a sports team, attended one of the team’s games and then “discussed” it with supporters wearing different colors afterwards doubts that the two sides see very different games indeed. “Bias” doesn’t even begin to cover it.


1 thought on “Phi Beta Football Foibles

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