Until 45 years ago, when the Club Sports program was established, sports such as polo, rugby and skiing were “minor sports” at Yale. Today, no club sport at Yale is minor. Many of the teams are nationally ranked, earning bids to national competitions. With such high rankings, some teams feel it’s time to seek varsity status.
Director of Club Sports Tom Migdalski said he believes the program serves a distinctive purpose.
“Club Sports is a unique opportunity for students, and although it’s not fully funded, students set their own match schedule, practice when they want and do not follow a rigorous varsity system,” he said.
But some students said they believe the level of competition they experience at the club level is unsatisfactory.
“The level of competition in club league is low,” co-captain Jill McSorley ’03 said. “We’re one of the best teams in the nation. We will blow teams away 15-1 many times. As much as it’s nice to win, it can be frustrating to not have a challenge.”
In 2001, women’s water polo became an NCAA sport. The NCAA does not permit club water polo teams to compete against varsity teams. Before the change in policy, the Bulldogs could play most Division I teams competitively, but now it is more difficult to arrange games against varsity teams.
“We’d like to be able to play teams with higher levels,” McSorley said. “We are highly competitive with teams that at this point have paid coaches and recruits, while our team is run entirely by students.”
Student players devote time to administrative business, such as reserving hotels for team travel and coordinating games and practices.
While the women’s water polo team is still searching for a way to make the jump to varsity status, the Yale Sailing Team made the transition from club status to varsity status in spring 2002 amid strong alumni support. But the change in status meant more than added funding.
Sailing team member Stuart McNay ’04 described the yacht club as a once-”glorified frat house” that now faces the seriousness of varsity control.
“The Athletics Department has gone as far as numbering the rooms, 101, 102, etc. which in our old house had legendary names: the cave, the boiler room, the sunny room,” he said in an e-mail.
In addition to facing a stricter social environment at the boat house, the sailing team’s varsity status makes it more difficult for casual participants to have a significant role in the team’s efforts. Currently, eight members — 25 percent of the team — are recruits. Eventually, McNay said, as many as 50 percent of the sailing team’s members may be recruits.
“Casual team members will feel like they have less of a place,” McNay said. “The team will become more performance-oriented.”
For the men’s club volleyball team, a move to varsity would threaten its ability to compete.
“Half of our team is graduate students and if we were varsity, they couldn’t play,” said Gary Thompson ’03, a member of the men’s club volleyball team.
Men’s club volleyball teams are especially strong and have serious programs, Thompson said.
“We went to nationals last weekend with 200 men’s teams,” Thompson said. “It was funny for us to find out that Arizona and some of the UC schools offer scholarships for players on their club volleyball teams.”
Thompson said he is concerned about the uncertainty of coaching for club teams, whose coaches are often volunteers. This year the men’s volleyball team’s coach is a former professional player who now works in the Admissions Office, he said.
Chris McPhee ’04, who is captain of the men’s cycling team, said the team would love to have varsity status but it is not realistic for most club sports.
McPhee was a member of the lightweight crew team his freshman year. He recalled the benefits of being a varsity athlete.
“There was access to facilities like the varsity weight room and free access to trainers,” McPhee said. “When you go to DUH and say you’re a varsity athlete they push you to the front of the line.”
McPhee qualified to compete in cycling nationals this year, but the competition falls on the day of one of his finals.
“I’m trying to move a final so that I might take it in the fall,” McPhee said. “My academic dean said if [cycling] were a varsity sport, then I could do it.”
Club sports receive some money from the University, but most teams must raise funds. The cycling team uses donations from sponsors and places their sponsors’ advertisements on their uniforms, McPhee said. The women’s club lacrosse buys their own uniforms and collects $35 membership fees, Greenburg said.
“The fees help cover the cost for referees at the games,” Greenburg said.
Migdalski said that club sports are not supposed to pull students away from the varsity program. Instead, they provide a special outlet for student-athletes to choose their own level of play.
“We’re trying to provide a unique experience and opportunity that is not duplicated in a varsity program,” Migdalski said.