Any fan of Williams intramurals (IM) should be worried about the effect of anchor housing on this hallowed tradition. In fact, I predict that the institution of anchor housing will lead, almost inevitably, to an intramural scene at Williams that is much less popular and inclusive than the current one, and even worse than what IM sports could be with only some minor improvements. Yet only screed-lovers should read further.

Start with some of the statements in the CUL Report.

The expectation is that affiliation with a meaningful residential community will enable the flourishing of many social activities, generated at the local level, but with campus-wide impacts: . . . greater enthusiasm for intramural sports (with teams representing houses rather than, as is typical under the free agent system, representing varsity sports teams that are “out of season”).

See here, here and here for previous commentary on IM sports. It seems obvious that the system of self-formed teams in intra-mural sports is sub-optimal. Much better is a system in which everyone signs up for, say, soccer, captains are recruited to head the different teams, and the league distributes players to ensure competitive balance. I have made this suggestion to Director of Campus Life Doug Bazuin. He didn’t seem interested.

The House System also offers the opportunity to reinvigorate the intramural competition that once thrived at Williams, and which can serve both to celebrate and reinforce students’ attachment to their residential communities. Such competition can include athletics (from basketball to innertube water polo), but it could also include bridge, chess, debate, public speaking, and many of the other activities that Williams students enjoy. Consideration might even be given to the awarding of an annual House Cup, in the interest of stimulating friendly House rivalry. Houses are encouraged to work creatively with the Office of Campus Life and the Athletic Department to develop intramural traditions that have broad appeal.

This is the CUL at its phantasmagorical best. In what possible universe is it plausible that there might be “public speaking” competitions between Houses? I know that, old alum that I am, I have little insight into kids today, but who would attend such events?

Also, it is nice to see that CUL favors “intramural traditions that have broad appeal,” but — Newsflash! — Williams already has this, or at least it did back in the day. Lots of people played IM Soccer. Is this no longer true? Again, we all wish that the CUL had bothered to collect some data on intramural sports over time. It would have been useful to compare and contrast different ways of organizing IM sports at Williams. But the whole idea that the way that you improve a community is to throw out everything that you have a start afresh from Year 0 is the worst sort of social planning fantasy.

To me, it is obvious that Williams would be better off with individual-sign-up IM sports rather than bring-your-own team. I might be right. I might be wrong. But these are the sort of small, concrete steps that CUL ought to spend its time studying. Instead, we get a wholesale restructuring of residential life at Williams. I hope that it all works out.

Most troubling, however, is President Schapiro’s prescription from the Alumni Review.

Each house will have a governance structure, faculty associates and funds for programming. Intramurals will again be organized by house.

“again”? I am not certain what this means. Although there was some intramural activity organized by house in the 1980’s — I think that broomball was only a house-based competition along with perhaps a few other sports (basketball?) — 95% of actual intramural games had nothing to do with houses. Post-fraternities, has there ever been another system? I don’t think so.

More importantly, is Morty saying that he is going to dismantle the current intramural system, that if you want to play intramural soccer (and you live in the Wood Cluster), you will have no choice but to play on the (one?) Wood team? That doesn’t seem to make much sense since there are many more student within the Wood cluster of 275 who want to play soccer, basketball and so on than can fit on a single team. I guess that you could restrict participation via try-outs or whatever and that this would lead to a higher level of play, but I can’t imagine that anyone favors this. (Then again, I couldn’t imagine the depth of support in the Administration for Anchor Housing itself.)

I guess that Morty might mean that IM Frisbee will still have 10 or so teams — How many does it have now? — but that those teams will be organized by House. That is, if you live in Wood and want to play frisbee, you need to play on one of the 2 or 3 Wood teams. I certainly prefer this option to the only-one-Wood-team choice, but I don’t see it as very stable. Certainly, at places like Harvard and Yale and all (?) the other House-based colleges that CUL loves to idealize, there is only one intramural team per house. Given that there are a dozen or so houses, this seems like a natural outcome, although it does lead to Harvard, for example, having no more IM soccer players than Williams despite being three times the size.

Could Wood House maintain 3 IM frisbee teams? I doubt it. After all, the CUL will be constantly trying to instill House spirit and (friendly) House competition. Let’s all go to the Quidditch Match! Well, to the extent that this works — and it may work a bit — there will be pressure to, you know, win. Wood House, or at least the folks in charge of intramurals at Wood House, will want to win the IM Frisbee Cup. How will they do that? Not by distributing their frisbee volunteers randomly among their three teams, much less by ensuring that the three teams are equal in talent. The way to win the IM Frisbee Cup will be, you guessed it, to put all your best players on one of the three teams.

Other houses will, presumably, want to do the same. Once a single house does it, others will be left with few options. After all, House spirit will be running strong! Then, how many people will want to keep on playing on the 2nd tier teams, teams that have no change against the best team from their own house or the number one teams from the other houses? Not many, I suspect. The obvious result will be that the frisbee league goes from a dozen teams to 5, one for each house. Moreover, even this isn’t very stable since it is hard to have a real league with only 5 teams. People interested in IM sports like to play those sports several times a week. Are the 5 frisbee teams going to play each other over and over again?

Now, the College might try to avoid this fate. It might try to force houses to distribute their frisbee talent equally. But such a top down scheme is very hard to enforce. How is Doug Bazuin going to know who the good frisbeers are? Even worse, gung-ho houses can avoid the dilution of their first team by “encouraging” the less talented athletes to go out for something else. “Why don’t you sign up for public speaking! We already have enough people going out for frisbee.”

Given that anchor housing and the concomitant Hogwartization of Williams is inevitable, what’s the right answer? How might we preserve and extend all that is best about IM sports at Williams while allowing Morty/CUL to incorporate IM competition in their hopeless attempt to generate house spirit?

Simple: Have two parallel and complimentary IM systems. There should be an IM soccer league run by the Office of Campus Life that is college-wide and centralized. Anyone can sign up. Captains are recruited. Teams are created fairly, perhaps even with some bias toward house unity, but with the primary focus being equality of talent. There should also be a special House competition tournament, also run by OCL that would be house-based, perhaps even requiring that the players also be a part of the college-wide league. It would feature a single tournament, perhaps over a brief period, with prizes and lots of College publicity. Morty and the CUL might attend these games.

As always, if it were me, I would just have the first sort of league. Yet at this stage, I’ll be happy if we can just prevent IM sports from being too screwed up by anchor housing.

Other suggestions would be welcome.

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