By The Metric Maven
Happy Metric Day everyone.
On September 17, 1977 the only known NCAA metric football game in America took place between St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges in Northfield Minnesota at Laird Stadium.
The game was proposed by Jerry Mohrig, a Chemistry Professor at Carleton College. This was precipitated by Jerry’s son, who noticed that sports such as swimming and track were going metric–perhaps a metric football game might be good. The NCAA had to grant permission for the game to take place–and did—after working out how to convert the statistics back to imperial. The major concern was that with a longer field, it was possible to have a runback for a touchdown that was longer than a non-metric field. The field was 100 meters long by 50 meters wide with 10 meter end zones.
The game program had the weights of the players in kilograms and their height in (archaic) centimeters.
Almost 10,000 people showed up to watch the Metric Football game. The game was broadcast on KYMN radio with metric color commentary by Dan Freeman. The announcers were filled with angst about how calling the game was going to be a complete horror—impossible! How would they constantly convert! It was a piece of cake, the numbers were just meters instead of yards, there was no reason to convert anything. By halftime their fears had vanished and the commentators were completely comfortable.
Existing pictures from the game show a female fan with a tee shirt that says “Drop back ten meters and punt!” Another photo from the contest shows a running back crossing the 10 meter line with no one to tackle him in sight. The expanded width and length of the football field really made the game more dynamic according to one of those involved.
Unfortunately it was a 43-0 defeat for Carleton. St. Olaf gained 302 meters in “meterage” Carleton had 106 meters in total offense.
The game was, despite the lopsided score, embraced by the students and increased moral during a losing football season. The director of men’s athletics at Carleton, Jack Thurnblad stated: “The students just went bananas over it.” he continued “It’s the only time I can remember in my 36 years at Carleton that students had bonfires before the game. They were really into this.”
The game received national coverage in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated. Carlton deployed Cheer-Liters to maintain team spirit during the game. The Carleton students saw themselves as making history.
The good people of Carleton even contemplated playing a “Liter Bowl” each year as the game had been so enjoyable.
The two teams are crosstown rivals and play each year for a “Goatrophy.” This allowed the winner to symbolically “get the goat” of the loser. But unfortunately, an annual Liter Bowl was never to be.
When Chemistry Professor Jerry Mohrig was asked in 2008 why we never became metric, even though the conversion push had begun in the late 1970s, his reply was interesting: “… that changed very quickly after the election of 1980 and all of a sudden it wasn’t American to become metric and we stopped talking about it.” Another participant described that September afternoon as a charming Norman Rockwell type of day, that could only take place in small town America, and not in a big city. The participants found The Metric Football Game to be an inspiring occasion. Two rival schools were able to work together to host the one and only metric football game ever held in the United States. Metric had united the rivals rather than creating cultural fissures. If only our country had followed their example.
The Carleton–St. Olaf metric game inspired me to imagine how an NFL game might unfold. Clearly no American would put up with the replacement of the single syllable word yard, with the two syllable word meter. But I know Americans, they would find a shorter designation. I can almost hear the ghost of Howard Cosell, calling a metric football game: “He’s out of bounds at the 21 m line…oh my he’s knocked over 15 liters of Gatorade! Hope he’s all right. He only weighs 84 kilos you know.”
Previously, I thought that converting American Football to metric was not all that important, but I’ve since changed my view. Football is the one sport in the US where measurement takes center stage. It is always about the distance to the first down marker. When there is a dispute about whether a first down has been achieved, the chain is brought out to measure the distance. I cannot think of another sport which is so intricately integrated with the idea of measurement and distance. Converting football to metric would almost instantly de-mystify metric measurement. I suspect by the end of the first metric football season no one would even notice the use of meters.
The objection that is often forwarded about switching football to the metric system is that it would make all of the old records meaningless. In my time watching American Football on this planet, I’ve seen an almost uncountable number of rule changes occur in professional Football over the years. How on earth can one argue that changing to a 100 meter field with 10 meter end-zones would be any more of a change than we’ve seen in the last 100 years. One could argue that metric conversion would give the NFL a “clean start” and also make football more international.
People many times use common objects to describe quantities. Pea sized, or golf ball sized hail comes to mind as an example. The football field is often invoked as a touchstone for area and distance. A distance might be described as the number of lengths of a football field. Areas are also often described using football fields. (can you tell me how large an acre is? It’s smaller than a football field, which contains 1.322 acres). The metric football field had 6000 square meters, a current field is 5351.215 square meters.
Converting football would most likely help metrication considerably and eliminate some silly imperial usage. I was watching the Atlanta Falcons play the Denver Broncos on September 17 (2012-09-17) and heard this from the referees: “It’s third down on the six inch yard line.” Clearly metric would help. It would be third down on the 150 mm line–all meters.
The Northfield Minnesota Historical Society has an oral history of The Metric Football Game on video here. You can also watch it on YouTube. I want to thank them for sending me an original program from the 1st Metric Football Game to use with this post.