There's simply nothing quite like the thrill of winning a competition. Whether it's trivia night with some coworkers, or a game of pickup with some friends, the rush of adrenaline that inherently comes with victory is exhilarating, but that feeling doesn't always last forever. Despite how fleeting the high of winning or the low of losing may be, there's a way that many athletes can more or less immortalize their special moments, feelings, and occasions. For some competitions, you win a trophy, or maybe a medal, while others might send you home with a plaque or certificate.
Those are all surefire ways to remember an occasion. They don't disappear like the number on a scoreboard or a time on a stopwatch. The thing that each of these items have in common is that they're keepsakes. Even in recent history, if you look closely, you can see that these keepsakes can come in all shapes and sizes. For instance, for those of you who have seen the postgame of an NFL game, you can always see players hurriedly jogging over to their competitors to try and swap jerseys as a sign of mutual respect between athletes.
However, what if I told you that this phenomenon isn't limited to the NFL, professional soccer, or even the NBA? Then, what if I told you that in one sport this exchange of uniforms is a tradition so old that it possibly predates even the NCAA which was founded in 1906?
Well, there is! This tradition is commonly known as “shirt betting.” It’s a tradition whose birthdate has evidently been lost in the annals of time. The earliest known pictures of the tradition originate from the 1960’s according to one article by Yale Daily News, but the tradition is thought to have begun at Syracuse University in 1920, although some rowing historians speculate that it may have begun even earlier, perhaps even prior to the 1900’s.
So, What Exactly Does Shirt Betting Mean?
It means WINNER TAKES ALL! The trophy, the medals, the flowers... The winner takes ALL, including the top half of an opponent's used uniform. Shirt betting typically occurs in the spring season of each year in the United States as collegiate rowing teams around the country begin facing off against one another in 2000 meter races, alternatively known as "sprint races" or "duals.” Following this 2000 meter race, which typically lasts around 6 minutes, the losing team strips their sweat-drenched uniforms off their backs as they hand them to their victorious counterparts while accepting their defeat with humility and respect accompanied with a handshake or wave.
[In modern-day rowing, some college teams elect to race wearing either a unisuit or their team-issued tank top (known as racing tanks) and they simply pass on their betting shirts later.]
What Makes It Special?
"The cool thing about shirt betting is that you're taking the shirt directly from the athlete who you just beat at your specific position. It's a completely different feeling than getting a medal from a race official. That interaction of exchanging shirts tranforms something that is ordinarily a team sport into something that feels slightly more like an individual competition where you're challenging your direct counterpart in the boat accross from you."
-Sam Desilva, Drexel University Rowing
What Happens Post Race?
Following the competition, the winning team returns home full of elation from their earlier victory. For many of those athletes, they replay the events of that day in their minds over and over, as it brings joy to their faces all over again. On the other hand, for some athletes, the race might feel like a distant memory by the time they reach home, wherever that may be. Nonetheless, despite how euphoric an athlete may feel following a race, they slowly or quickly begin their descent back to earth and levelheadedness.
Once that sense of normalcy has returned, most athletes promptly wash the shirt of their fallen competitor [I hope] and they go from there. Some of the victors hang the spoils of competition on their walls like prized possessions, while others fold and tuck them away neatly in a dresser to be worn later. Alternatively, some of the older, more tenured competitors have won and accumulated enough betting shirts to make quilts from the uniform of their fallen rivals.
In the rowing community, there are even rumors of some student-athletes from The University of Pennsylvania in the '90s who allegedly amassed 150+ shirts apiece throughout their 4 years as collegiate athletes. This figure, although enormous, may not be entirely unrealistic, as some events such as the National Championship can award the winning squad with uniforms from 25+ defeated universities.
As a collegiate rower myself, it’s been an interesting experience to engage in the exchanging of betting shirts; particularly in a time of Covid where instead of exchanging shirts directly this past year, many teams simply sent over a package of their betting shirts at a later date. This year, following each race, upon receiving the package of shirts, our team would gather around the coaching staff as they announced each victorious boat, and the members of that boat would then be distributed their newly acquired shirts one by one. Although I didn’t receive any betting shirts this past year, I still most certainly believe that shirt betting is one of the coolest hidden gems in collegiate athletics!
I just shared the collegiate rowing tradition known as shirt betting. Are you a rower? Do you know someone who rows? Have you ever even heard of shirt betting? Tell us in the comments below! Feel free to share our articles by hitting the share button and leaving a like!
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