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Davidson College’s Unique Sport

by | Jul 3, 2024

Flickerball in the 1980s (Jane Campbell photo)


Intramural sports, among them football, have long been a feature at American colleges and universities. Around 1950, however, schools began to switch from regular football to tag football. Among them was Davidson College.In 1951, college president John Cunningham and college physician James Woods banned intramural football because the players wore no pads or helmets and there were frequent injuries.

While the Davidson version of the game was called tag football, the college adopted a different set of rules than other schools, making its version unique. In 1954 the name “flickerball” appeared and is still in use today. During these early years, flickerball was an inter-fraternity sport, as were all the other intramural sports.  The first week of competition was in October 1951, and resulted in much confusion. According to an October 12 article in the Davidsonian, the combination football and basketball rules were confusing, and the “only resemblance to actual football is the ball.”

Cecil Clifton, who played flickerball in the late 1960s, remembers having six-member fraternity teams that played each other team once. Games were held only during the regular football season. The field was slightly shorter than a regular football field, and players had to advance 18 yards for a first down.There were no frills — no coaches, no cheering sections, team names, or team shirts. Nevertheless, Cecil considers it the

The Phi Delta Theta fraternity flickerball team, which won the championship in 1959-60. (Photo from the Davidson College annual, Quips & Cranks)

best sport he ever played. Since you could pass the ball to any teammate, in any direction, at any time, everyone on the team was engaged. He remembers that one year, he and his friends organized a game on their first day back at school, and four hours of hard play left them all sore and exhausted.

Women were first admitted to the college in 1972, and by 1974 they were also playing flickerball. Gradually, flickerball teams were not fraternity-based. Instead, they were organized by freshman halls during orientation. Everyone fought hard for the championship, and long-lasting friendships, and even perhaps some love affairs, arose out of the camaraderie.

Women Students Playing Flickerball in 1974. (Photo from the Davidson College annual, Quips & Cranks)

In September of 2016, Alivia McAtee wrote about her introduction to flickerball on the website “As a freshman, you hear a lot about ‘flickerball,’ the infamous sport that is unique to Davidson. When I got my first email from my coach, I was worried to learn that my first game was in less than a week; I had absolutely no idea how to play. A fellow freshman tried to console me by explaining that it was, ‘just like football, except you can throw the ball as much as you want.’ Great, because I totally know how to play football. After our first practice though, I was feeling good. Mostly because my hallmates seemed to really know what they were doing. Pretty soon, it was game day. My team was so ready to kill it. In order to intimidate the other team, we all held hands and skipped onto the field while screaming our very own chant. The game was long. The game was intense. An illegal contact penalty was called (against us). Personally, I felt a little lost. But in the end, we reigned supreme. All in all, flickerball has turned out to be a great hall bonding experience. (And a great way to meet cute upperclassmen boys (A.K.A., coaches).”

Davidson students continue to play flickerball today, almost 75 years after its introduction, both as part of freshman orientation and as an intramural sport.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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