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The Fighting Quakers from Sidwell Friends aren’t putting up much of a fight lately.
If the school’s had a worse football season at any time in its 127-year history, nobody remembers it. The team is winless and has been outscored 373-43. Without the slaughter rule, intended to limit the humiliation suffered by somebody on the business end of a beating by directing the timekeeper to keep the game clock running once a team goes down by 35 points, the margins would have been a lot worse. It’s been invoked in every Sidwell game this year—not counting the one forfeit.
Sidwell went into Saturday’s game against Saint James, a boarding school outside Hagerstown, having lost the two previous weeks by a combined score of 95-0, and gave up a touchdown on Saint James’ first play from scrimmage. Coach John Simon tried to fire up his team by screaming “You gotta play football, not lacrosse!” at them. That didn’t work. Sidwell went down 38-0, thereby qualifying for slaughter-rule protections, when there were still about eight minutes left in the first half.
The final score was 51-12.
“It was really nice of [the Saint James coach] to take his players out at the half,” Simon said at game’s end. “Class act. We used to win here.”
Simon’s been with the football team since 1989, and is in his 14th season as head coach. His teams dominated Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference football a decade ago, as Sidwell won six straight league titles. He’s never gone through a season winless.
Times have changed. Some parents blame this season’s collapse on the administration for years of not paying attention to the football program; administrators attribute the downturn to students’ losing interest in Sidwell football last year while the home field was being rebuilt.
“The lack of home games meant football got no exposure on campus,” says first-year Head of School Tom Farquhar.
But to paraphrase the mother of one famous Sidwell alum, it takes a village to build a football program this horrible. The school was forced to do away with the junior varsity team for the 2010 season because only 30 kids went out for football this summer—nowhere near enough bodies to fill both JV and varsity rosters. The freshmen and sophomores who would have played JV went straight to varsity.
The team lost 10 players to injury, including all but two of the seniors, in the first two games of the season. And after taking a 61-6 pounding from some new Catholic outfit in Prince William County called Pope John Paul the Great, school officials ordered the forfeit of a game with Baltimore Lutheran, fearing the lack of upperclassmen could create dangerous mismatches against more mature opponents. There was some talk in Sidwell circles of cancelling the rest of the season after the forfeit. But Farquhar says he saw that sufficient safety precautions were in place—including post-game brain-function tests of all players to look for concussions—and decided that the hard times offered a season’s worth of teachable moments; the surviving players could learn valuable lessons “about perseverance” not available to kids on good or even mediocre squads.
Sidwell only brought 19 healthy players (including 9 freshmen), and about as many fans, to Saint James. No students showed up to cheer on the team. When an ambulance drove by the field during the game, some parents half-joked that they hoped the medics weren’t going too far away. (As it turned out, no Sidwell players had to visit Saint James’ infirmary.)
Sidwell’s never expected to be a football powerhouse. Its prestige comes from academics and from being the place where generations of D.C.’s most powerful people sent their spawn: Offspring of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon and kin to the Clintons, Gores, Obamas, and Bidens.
The most talented sportsman to ever crack a book at Sidwell was basketballer Roger Mason. But the future University of Virginia star and NBA player left the school after his freshman year for the jockier pastures of Good Counsel High, now located in Olney.
Non-athletic pride used to be enough. One Sidwell alum remembers Fighting Quakers fans taunting visitors from less-bookwormy schools in the mid-1990s with chants of “Hooked on Phonics!” at sporting events. And at a basketball game in December 2008, students taunted fans from Maret in Woodley Park, a MAC rival and the runner-up to Sidwell in the competition for the Obama girls’ enrollment (and $32,000 tuition payments), with repeated calls of “Obama! Obama! Obama!”
But some segments of the Sidwell community are embarrassed with and peeved by the total collapse of the football program. In the Saint James visitors’ grandstand, fans talked among themselves about what can be done to make the team less slaughter-friendly. The football parents say they’ve been told by administrators that as many as 10 slots are open in this year’s sophomore class. They want athletic prowess to be given more weight during the admissions process, even if that means lessening academic and social requirements. That’s a change they could believe in.
“If they [make concessions] for a Supreme Court justice’s kid,” huffed one parent, “why not do it for football kids?”
The pounding the school has taken on the field this season has incited Sidwell haters with allegiance to other hoity-toity privates in the area to go semi-public with their beefs against what currently ranks as D.C.’s most elite institution. Ever since Sidwell administrators called for the injury-inspired forfeit, the website DCUrbanMom.com has hosted the prissiest flame war imaginable.
And those with Sidwell leanings have responded in kind. Or unkind.
A few samples from the 30-pages-and-counting of uncouthness:
Sidwell bashers: “Sidwell is a girls school that happens to have boys.’” “At other schools, excellence in the classroom and athletic fields are not mutually exclusive.” “Maybe Sidwell should consider a flag football league. Or just games where boys tickle each other with feathers.”
Sidwell sympathizers: “Come tell some of the real male athletes (yes, there are a few) at Sidwell that they’re ‘girls’ and they’ll sort you out.” “Sidwell just isn’t a meathead school. Hey, if you want a meathead school, head to Landon.” “Landon athletes will have plenty of time to lift weights in prison.”
“I think [the message board war] is more about politics than anything else,” says Chris Stern, who has two kids on the Sidwell team. “It’s people who want to say ‘Look at those liberals who think they can play football!’ If Sidwell has to take some lumps on dcurbanmoms, that’s alright. Yes, this is horrible. This is a systematic failure. But you know what? The kids are having fun.”
Farquhar wouldn’t predict a quick turnaround for the football team. He said conference rules prohibit Sidwell from making “first contact” with prospective athletes, meaning the athletes must initiate the recruiting process. But recent gridiron slaughters notwithstanding, he remains very satisfied with the overall state of the school; the school’s It’s Academic team is “in fine shape,” he says, referring to the WRC-TV Saturday morning quiz show.
Sidwell ends its season this weekend against Maret. Sure, Sidwell’s had an all-time horrendous year. But Maret is only 2-6 itself. It’s also an intradivision rival. So you can toss out the record book, right?
Heck, no. Sidwell’s gonna get slaughtered.
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