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The Long and Storied History of Emerson Athletics

All Emersonians know that our football team is undefeated since 1880 … because we’ve never had a football team. But did you know that Emerson College had a wrestling team? Or a sailing team? And an ice hockey team?

It’s all true.

All photos from Archives & Special Collections

  • Cheerleading team
  • Men's basketball game with two men jumping for ball
  • Large group photo
  • Two men wrestle in a match against each other
  • Men's basketball team photo
  • Woman dribbling basketball ahead of other players
  • Basketball players jump for ball
  • Two men in small sailing boat
  • Two people sit on the floor smiling
  • Softball player swinging bat
  • Baseball pitcher throws ball at night
  • Man dunks basketball in hoop
  • Women's soccer team with arms around each other
  • Female goalie kicks ball
  • Woman runs
  • Man swings golf club
  • Woman running
  • Man jumps to shoot basketball near the rim
  • Two women jump at volleyball net
  • Male cross country runner
  • Man dribbles soccer ball
  • Man jumps to spike volleyball
  • Woman hits volleyball while in the air at the net
  • Women's lacrosse game
  • Male lacrosse player cradles ball against a defender

A disclaimer: Pinpointing Emerson athletics history for this story was tough, as official records do not exist, so some of Emerson’s athletics teams’ beginnings are circa. From scouring Emerson yearbooks, course catalogs, student handbooks, Berkeley Beacons, and our alumni magazine, we traced our old Purple Panthers teams.

Oh, we used to be called the Purple Panthers, until 1965, when we took on our present-day moniker, the Lions.

We’re not including club or intramural teams on this timeline. But in case you’re wondering, Emerson has had numerous club/intramural teams/sports through the years, including: karate, tennis, golf, flag football, judo, gymnastics, ultimate frisbee, sailing, swimming, wiffleball, and more. Some sports, such as tennis and golf, started as intramural and then became varsity sports. We are still hopeful that Quidditch becomes a varsity sport.

Woman hits volleyball while in the air at the net
Women’s volleyball player gets up at the net in 2016.

One erstwhile sport to note, due to its overwhelmingly popularity, was the Sailing Club. In 1965, the yearbook noted it was the largest student organization. The club was so big that there were two large group photos of the team in the yearbook. The club’s purpose was to promote recreational and competitive sailing, with students participated in sailing, racing, and rowing. The club was a member of the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association and a member of the New England Women’s Intercollegiate Sailing Association. But eventually the club set sail…

The story of Emerson athletics begins in 1930, when several female students worked with physical education teacher Elsie Riddell to found the Recreation Club. Each student in the club was given an activity to coordinate throughout the school year, including swimming, hiking, skating, volleyball, and seasonal sports. It was common for coordinators to schedule events in the countryside so students could have more space and fresher air in which to exercise.

Woman dribbles basketball
Making moves on the basketball court in 2013.

Through the years, Emerson added more sports. Some, like men’s basketball, has been a mainstay since it began in 1947. The soccer team had a rocky going in the 1980s and 1990s. The team was co-ed, and the season was cancelled due to lack of interest in 1987, but it came back as a co-ed team the next year. In 1990, the team split into men’s and women’s teams.

Other sports came and went, like the aforementioned ice hockey and wrestling teams.

Emerson hasn’t always had home field advantage, as many of our teams played, and continue to play, at non-Emerson locations. The basketball teams used to play home games at MassArt’s gym before we built the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym in the basement of Piano Row. In a role reversal, visiting NBA teams have used the gym to practice in pre-pandemic years.

Today, Emerson’s men’s and women’s soccer teams, men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, and softball team, all play at Rotch Field in the South End for practices and home games. Emerson has a public-private partnership with Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department to use the field. Some teams still play home games on the road; tennis and baseball teams play their home games and matches at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Softball player takes a swing in 2016.

Countless athletes have dominated on playing fields and courts but probably the most famous Emerson player is known for his influence off the court. Sam Presti ’00 is the longtime general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and has drawn praise from many people, including Lebron James, for his savvy scouting and decisions.

Here’s a timeline of Emerson athletics:

Learn more about the Emerson Athletics Day of Giving

1933: The Recreation Club founded inter-class volleyball for female students and the winning team was awarded letters. This was the first time that letters were distributed for sports activities – you know, like on the old-school varsity jacket Danny dons at the end of Grease

1947: A group was founded to provide sports activities for men

1947: The men’s basketball team was founded, as was a co-ed cheer squad with mostly women members. Through the next several decades, the cheer team consisted mostly of women

1948: Men’s baseball team founded

1951: The women’s basketball team was founded this year at the latest, but it wasn’t included in the Emersonian yearbook until 1958

1959: Men’s wrestling team founded

Men's basketball players celebrate on court
Men’s basketball players celebrate a victory.

1960: Charles “Ted” Phillips became Emerson’s first athletic director

1961: Co-ed bowling team mentioned for first time in the yearbook

1963: The sailing team is mentioned for the first time in the yearbook. Emerson also had a racing sailing team. Fun fact: Emerson College used to own an Esplanade dock on the Charles River

1965: Emerson College officially changed its mascot from the Purple Panthers to the Lions

1966: Men’s cross-country team founded

1968: Men’s ice hockey team founded

two men play soccer
Pete Chvany plays soccer with his son, Alec. Chvany is credited with establishing separate soccer teams for men and women. (Courtesy of the Emerson College Archives and Special Collections)

1973: Women’s softball team mentioned for first time in yearbook

1973: Golf team mentioned for first time in yearbook

1975: Men’s soccer team mentioned for first time

1982: Golf listed as an intramural sport, not varsity

1983: Soccer team is co-ed

1985: Golf listed as a varsity sport again

1985: Last year wrestling listed as varsity sport

1986: Women’s volleyball and women’s tennis listed as varsity sports

1987: Men’s hockey team discontinued

1987: Co-ed soccer team’s season cancelled due to lack of interest

1987: Men’s tennis team listed as varsity sport

1988: Soccer team returns as varsity sport with one woman on the team

1990: Women’s soccer team becomes varsity sport

1995: Co-ed varsity golf team

1998: Men’s lacrosse team founded

2000: Golf discontinued as a varsity sport

2001: Women’s lacrosse team founded

Jenn Williams, Michelle Romero, and Melissa DIBeradino of Emerson College Archives contributed vast amounts of research to this article.

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