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#TBT To When The Barnard Bears Played Against Riker’s Island Prisoners

Vintage Barnard Babes killing it in the Milbank Quadrangle, 1917

Vintage Barnard Babes killing it in the Milbank Quadrangle, 1917

Columbia and Barnard haven’t always had great basketball teams, but they’ve certainly seen some notable games over the years. Their most recent victory this past weekend led Nadra Rahman to delve deep into the sports archives for this week’s #TBT, where she discovered a game with more meaning than merely dribbling, shooting, and scoring.

The women’s basketball team’s recent victory in a pre-season exhibition game prompted us to reach back into our long, long memories here at Bwog—back to another day the women’s basketball team, then the Barnard Bears, had won an important match.

The Bears weren’t a great team: they lost most of their games, and the program had difficulty thriving, mostly because of critical underfunding and the fact that most players were walk-ons. Cristel Ford, co-captain in the 1975-76 season astutely said, “We don’t recruit for brawn; we recruit for brains,” a statement that summed up the root cause of the Bears’ struggle.

Despite their troubled record, the team did manage to win against the unlikeliest of adversaries in April 1974: a women’s team assembled from inmates at Riker’s Island.

Though one might not expect a women’s college and a women’s prison to interact very often, the 1974 game marked the third time Barnard had gone out to Riker’s Island to play basketball (and the first time Barnard won). The short-lived tradition was implemented ostensibly to benefit both the Bears and the inmates: while reflecting on the game, player Jennifer Fox-Shults noted that the Barnard women became curious about and sympathetic towards the inmates. They became aware of a need to widen their perspectives. And though basketball might seem a shallow way and inadequate way to approach the complex issue of incarceration in America, Fox-Shults still emerged with thoughtful conclusions. She wrote, in particular, about the realities faced by the prisoners: “to be black is to be suspect; to be female is to have no options; to be in prison is to have no self.”

The prisoners, meanwhile, found the game to be a release—not only from the monotony of prison life, but from the pressure of not being able to touch other human beings. In basketball, they found an outlet.

This all seems a little uneven: one team is changed for life and the other is affected for only a few hours, and not very meaningfully. This is the point that Fox-Shults raised when she said, “Seven Barnard students’ experience is thereby widened. But what of the other team?” And yet, despite the possibility that the Bears were not changing anything and did not have the capacity to change anything, the game still represented a cultural exchange that provoked thought and discussion. In that, it was successful, and can we really ask anything more of a basketball program?

As for the game, it was an ordinary one in an ordinary court, and the team that was more prepared won—but all that matters less than what it symbolized for both sides.

Vintage Barnard Babes via Barnard Archives Digital Collections

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I enjoyed this article.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous When/why did Bwog become serious? When I saw the title of this article, I was cracking up; after reading it, I just miss the old, funny Bwog. Will you ever be back?

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