Although nearly 40 percent of Bowdoin students are members of varsity sports teams, athletic offerings on campus range in level of competition and commitment. A variety of intramural leagues help students find the right balance of fun and competition in multiple sports, from badminton to hockey. Club and junior varsity (JV) sports provide opportunities for serious competition against other schools on a local and even national level.
However, it was not always like this. For decades, the non-varsity athletics scene on campus consisted almost entirely of a system of interfraternity athletics. In a social scene so dominated by Greek life, fraternity influence naturally bled into athletic competition as well. Over the years, the interfraternity contests took on different forms, but the events themselves remained hugely popular.
In its earliest conception in the late 1800s, the interfraternity system was designed to “get the men [that are] not varsity material … exercise and competition,” according to the Interfraternity Athletic Council (IAC) minutes from November 10, 1931.
Interfraternity contests quickly grew in size and popularity. Participation shot up from the original flag football leagues as other sports were added to the list. Baseball, basketball, track and swimming attracted more and more athletes, and by the time volleyball and bowling were added in the early-to-mid-1900s, hundreds of men were participating in what had become a vibrant non-varsity sports scene.
Notably, accounts of the proceedings of the IAC are full of debate over whether varsity athletes should be eligible to compete in the interfraternity leagues. The council devoted a full typewritten page to establish detailed regulations for who should and should not be allowed to compete for the Ives Trophy, a prestigious award.
Despite the fact that varsity athletes were banned from competition in any interfraternity athletic event, interfraternity contests frequently attracted more attention than varsity game results. The Orient frequently included coverage of these contests; a featured article in the Sports section published on April 9, 1952 described Chi Psi’s victory in the interfraternity volleyball playoffs: “A fair crowd attended both games and there was much excitement…since this was such a close contest.”
Capitalizing on the popularity of the non-varsity leagues, fraternity members sought to expand their jurisdiction from managing athletic affairs to college affairs at large.
“Confer with the Student Council on becoming the Interfraternity Council instead of the Interfraternity Athletic Council—thereby broadening its powers,” read the minutes of an IAC meeting on November 10, 1931. However, all records of the Interfraternity Council and Interfraternity Athletic Council disappear from the records in 1943, suggesting that this motion never came to fruition.
The immense popularity of these events threatened to overshadow varsity teams. In fact, the school’s administration went so far as to propose a motion to downsize or even eliminate the entire interfraternity athletic system.
“The topic reopened the discussion on whether the Board was in favor of continuing intramural athletics on the interfraternity basis. Roland Cobb outlined the program suggested by the Athletic Department which had for its aim the minimizing of fraternity feeling which is injurious to varsity teams,” read the IAC minutes from May 31, 1932.
Despite the administration’s doubts, the interfraternity leagues were allowed to continue through the mid-20th century.
Although the interfraternity games featured serious levels of competition, the leagues were not exempt from the realities of Greek life. Fraternity members were warned not to sabotage their own teams by hazing their recruits to a point where they would be unable to compete:
“[It is vital] that freshman football [players] should be exempt from all kinds of hazing by the fraternity liable to injure them,” read the IAC minutes from October 1, 1931.
As engagement grew throughout the early 1900s, other campus organizations and institutions blossomed to support this form of athletics. A set of trophies and cups were bought to reward the winners of various divisions of competition. For each season of competition, one fraternity was named the champion and presented with an engraved trophy. The Ives Trophy was awarded to the fraternity that accumulated the highest point total throughout the entire year.
One such cup, the Interfraternity Winter Sports Trophy, is still held in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives. In 1927 and 1928, the trophy was won by Sigma Nu, which existed in what is now Helmreich House. The trophy—which is somewhat tarnished, has a dent or two and still smells faintly of stale beer inside—seems a fitting tribute to Sigma Nu’s triumph.
The current system of intramural athletics is undeniably more open, diverse and accessible than the exclusive, competitive system set up by the fraternities. However, through the Bowdoin archives and through artifacts like trophies and meeting minutes meticulously cataloged over decades, the history of these leagues lives on.