On a cold, crisp Thursday evening thirty-one years ago, numerous vans started arriving at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. A light snowfall muffled the town, but most of the vehicles were filled with noisy, nervous young men. As the vans pulled into various hotels, laughter and high volume teasing could be heard in parking lots and lobbies; it was the start of intercollegiate weekend.
The game in those days was hardball, and all college matches, even at the intercollegiates, had been un-refereed. Sometimes, there had been scorers (often the losing player of the match that was on before yours), but there hadn't been any referees or judges (the hardball referee system consisted of a central referee and two side judges).
In hardball, lets were still called "lets", but strokes were called "let points." But until this mid-winter weekend, there were no let points in college squash; what we think of as stroke situations were automatic lets.
The reasons why intercollegiate squash hadn't adopted let points from the start have been lost over time, but most agreed that the idea of having a player from either team refereeing a teammate and his opponent seemed laughable.
Every now and then, for example, the combination of collegiate testosterone and the lack of let points/strokes created a combustible combination: players sometimes aimed for and hit each other with the ball. Every season or two, a match somewhere around the country got out of hand, and though they were infrequent, they caused much angst among college coaches.
In the very early eighties, a new breed of players emerged on the college scene; intelligent and composed, they were able to tap the ball into the back of their opponents without taking a full swing, thus earning points instead of being forced to play let.
Of course, not all players had the skill and self-control to pull back, so as the "tap" became more common, so did full-swing attempts, and players getting hit became a more frequent occurrence. The time had come for something to be done.
In Williamstown, players experimentally would be allowed to call let points/strokes against themselves. If a player knew he was in a let point situation, he was now supposed to give the point to his opponent. Many thought this was going to increase the number of on-court arguments, not reduce them, and there was trepidation as the weekend began.
If anyone helped ensure that the rule would stay, it was John Seidel, of Stonybrook University. His sportsmanship in a highly competitive match convinced everyone that this could work; he called over a dozen let points against himself, most notably on match point in overtime in the fifth. Seidel was the runner-up for the sportsmanship trophy that year, and let points became a part of college squash.
These days, college players aren't required to make calls against themselves, matches are refereed by fellow players, and opponents have proven to be remarkably impartial refereeing high-stake matches.
With local and regional tournaments, the primary problem hasn't been impartiality, but getting players to fulfill their refereeing duties.
For decades, the winner of the match was supposed to referee the match that followed. With limited time until the next match, however, players often ducked the responsibility, preferring instead to shower and eat.
Over time, numerous incentive schemes were put into place to try to get players do meet their duties, including allowing players either to referee or to find someone else to do it, requiring players to sign a sheet once they have refereed, and a five-dollar surcharge on every entry fee that was reimbursed once a player refereed a match.
In recent years, the system switched: now, losers referee. This has led to its own problems, as the losers of matches often are less experienced than the winners with the rules and with refereeing, but it has meant that fewer players bail completely.
In November, I played in the Maine Open at Bowdoin College, and perhaps because the great majority of players were college students, they employed the refereeing system that is now common in college: both the winner and the loser of the match referee the following match. One primarily keeps score and one makes the calls. Often, on tricky situations, the two collaborate to try to get the call as correct as possible.
The system was great.
Not only did it lead to better calls overall, but it also created a spirit of cooperation between players who had been opponents minutes before.
As both the winner and the loser of excruciatingly close (and highly competitive) matches, I found that refereeing with my former opponent right after the match dramatically changed the dynamics of being a winner or a loser.
Inevitably, while the next players warmed up, my former opponent and I chatted and got to know each other. During the breaks between games, we talked, we laughed, and we got over the competitive match we had just completed.
Perhaps the Bowdoin team are simply a terrific group of young people (and much credit has to be given to Tomas Fortson, a former college standout from Fordham University, who is the Bowdoin head coach), but I loved getting to know them in a personal way. It carried over to the locker room, as well, where the attitude was casual, funny and friendly; I loved being a peer, in a manner of speaking, with college age players.
Thirty-one years ago, college squash lagged behind local tournaments not only in how the rules of the game were applied, but also in how matches were refereed. Perhaps we should now allow college squash to teach the rest of us what they have long known: collaboration (even if forced) can make friends out of opponents.
After all, isn't that what this is all about?