Division III Grinnell College canceled its football schedule for the rest of 2019, citing a dearth of healthy players.

The Pioneers lost 11 of their 38 players to injury during the first three games of the season, Athletic Director Andy Hamilton said in a phone interview, leaving them with one backup in each position group.

But the team said the decision not to finish the season’s remaining seven games came from players as an act of protest.

“It was not the administration that forfeited the season,” senior linebacker Rick Johnson said in a phone interview. “It was not their doing. It was the players’ doing, and it was for our safety and to protest the administration in hopes to get institutional support.”

Johnson said players want more assistant coaches, more training infrastructure, a commitment to recruit more football players and buy-in from the admissions department to admit those recruits.

Grinnell lists eight football coaches on staff. Macalester College, a peer institution that beat Grinnell, 42-3, on Saturday, has 15, according to the school. Johnson said coaches have told players they are bringing in recruits from all over the country but that those athletes don’t always get admitted to Grinnell, whose admissions process is highly selective. Administrators, on the other hand, have told players there simply aren’t enough football prospects interested in Grinnell to make a full recruiting class, Johnson said. Players don’t know whom to believe.

“It’s a lack of institutional support,” he said. “We’re not at all investing in the football team. We understand that football is not a priority at this school, and that is okay. It doesn’t have to be a priority, and it doesn’t have to be a football school. But they’re not doing enough to let us be competitive among other teams.”

After the Pioneers’ loss to Macalester, the team’s seniors gathered the rest of the team to discuss how to handle the rest of the season. Hamilton, the athletic director, said coaches provided the seniors the injury report for the coming week. Johnson said the team never received that information.

“There was no update as to any new information that the coaching staff or administration had, and we were not aware of conversations inside the administration to forfeit the season,” he said. “Our understanding was that next week they wanted us to go up to St. Norbert and play.”

Instead, players voted Sunday — with a “strong majority,” Johnson said — not to take the field the remainder of the season. Grinnell announced the decision Tuesday.

“The College is unwilling to compromise the health and safety of its players, including the 11 players, who over the course of the first seven weeks of practice and play, will miss some or all of the season,” the team said in a statement.

“We have a lot of mixed emotions,” Hamilton said in an interview. “We have five seniors who aren’t going to be able to play their last seven games of their career. We have first-year student-athletes that we’re very keen on that won’t get to finish their first season.

“I think there’s a lot of recognition that we made the correct choice based on the health and welfare of the students.”

The college declined to make head coach Jeff Pedersen or any players available for interviews. Johnson and other players contacted The Washington Post independently.

Grinnell has struggled for years with the size of its football rosters. In the past 40 seasons, Hamilton said, the Pioneers have had seven teams with fewer than 40 players, six with more than 50 and the rest with between 40 and 50.

In each of the past three years, the Pioneers have had fewer than 40 players on their roster.

“We would prefer to be higher. Comfortable is not a feeling that we’ve had,” Hamilton said.

“This is not just a this-year problem,” senior wide receiver David Taylor said. “It’s an every-year problem, and that’s why we got to this point so quickly. It’s a lack of institutional support.”

Admission to Division III Grinnell, which has an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,700 students, has become increasingly competitive in recent years. The college received 8,000 applications, Hamilton said, for 450 spots in the freshman class. The average two-part SAT score for newly admitted students has gone up 100 points, and the average ACT score is up between two and three points. That can make recruiting football players difficult.

So does the school’s location, Hamilton said. It’s hard to recruit football players from all over the nation when they can’t find the village of Grinnell, Iowa, on a map.

And yet the sport has a deep history at the school. In 1889, less than a quarter-century after the Civil War ended, the University of Iowa issued a challenge for a football game, the first college contest played west of the Mississippi River. Grinnell answered the call. The Pioneers whipped the Hawkeyes, 24-0. The heritage has remained important.

“We feel the students should be playing the game,” former football coach Edd Bowers told the Associated Press in 1989, the 100th anniversary of football at the college. “I think we play the game for the game’s sake. I like that. It’s not for the spectators.”

“The game has changed so tremendously, so at a place like Grinnell, it remains more or less an opportunity,” then-university president George Drake said. “I believe virtually anyone who likes to play football has a chance to play at Grinnell.”

That remains true, Hamilton said this week. The Pioneers routinely start players who have no high school football experience. With so many roster spots open, if a student can keep up with the team’s physical demands while staying on top of schoolwork, he probably can suit up on game day.

“If you would have a chance to observe our team play, especially when we were outnumbered the past couple of years, when we stepped on the field, it just wasn’t possible for us to outscore our opponent,” Hamilton said. “Our guys play for the love of the game."

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Johnson, a studio art and economics double major. It means football players get to be part of other activities on campus. They can join clubs, study abroad and pursue internships. But it’s hard for each graduating class to leave the football program better than it found it. The Pioneers haven’t had a winning season since 2010.

“At the end of the day, you’re playing for your teammates, which is great, but to be at the point we were at this early in the season, it was like we were running our heads into a wall,” Johnson said. “That was my breaking point because at the end of the season, we’d still be 0-10 and it’d be just as hard to recruit, and nothing changes.”

Nationally, high school football participation has declined 9.1 percent over the past 10 years, and Hamilton said the drop “has to be part of what’s going on” for the school.

Still, Grinnell will field a team in 2020, Hamilton said. The Pioneers will lose only six seniors, though more could transfer or leave the sport. But the Pioneers are on track to have 50 players on their roster with a healthy recruiting class, he said. That would be on par with some of their rivals.

He said the school has not considered ending the football program entirely.

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