The phrase “Yale athlete” sometimes elicits certain stereotypes: intellectual mediocrity, astounding connoisseurship of repulsively cheap beer and aversion to wearing anything but Boathouse jackets. And, as recent experience has shown, continuing selection as Rhodes Scholars.
While athletes may receive their share of mixed press, a quiet trend is emerging among Yalies who win the prestigious scholarship to pursue graduate study at Oxford — they play varsity sports.
In the past 15 years, six Eli athletes have won the award. In the past two years, two of the three winners have played at the varsity level. Only two Yale athletes, by comparison, won the award during the whole of the ’80s. The recent selection of Chris Wells ’04, a soccer player, for the scholarship marked the first time in Yale history that the only Rhodes winner has been a varsity athlete.
A legacy of athleticism
Though intellectualism is not typically associated with athleticism, physical prowess has been a key feature of the Rhodes Scholarship since its establishment following the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902. In Rhodes’ will, he stipulated that future recipients of the award would have to satisfy four broad categories outlining his desire to recognize students who have demonstrated intellectual and social excellence.
The second category dictates that prospective Rhodes scholars should be evaluated based on the “energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports.” In recent history, however, the majority of Rhodes scholars have not been varsity athletes.
Elliot Gerson, the American secretary to the Rhodes Scholarship trust, said Rhodes’ conception of athleticism differs from that of today.
“The English notions of the importance of athletics [at the time] reflected the ‘Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ mentality,” Gerson said, referring to a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington about the famous English prep school.
“We are still guided by the terms of Cecil Rhodes’ will,” Gerson said.
He added that Rhodes’ idea of rigorous physical activity included sports like cricket.
Since the middle of the 20th century, Gerson said, the Rhodes Scholarship has reflected a much more liberal interpretation of the “physical vigor” clause of the will.
“We look for energy, ambition and vigor,” Gerson said. “But the most important criteria are intellectual and academic.”
Former varsity lacrosse captain Catherine Sharkey ’92 LAW ’97 said it is important for Rhodes Scholars to represent a variety of extracurricular pursuits.
“The Rhodes is trying to find people who are well-rounded and who put their energies seriously into whatever they do,” Sharkey, who won the Rhodes in 1991, said. She is now a professor at Columbia Law School.
Laura Shackelton, a 2002 Rhodes winner from Princeton University and the sister of former Yale men’s tennis captain Chris Shackelton ’02 and Jeff Shackelton ’05, agreed.
“Sports are taken more as a part of the entire picture,” she said. “There are so many different ways to have physical vigor.”
Shackelton was co-captain of the women’s varsity cross-country team and a member of the track team for the Tigers.
Despite the increasing liberalization of the application of the physical vigor clause, initial rounds of the Rhodes selection process sometimes reveal differing interpretations of the value of athletics compared to other extracurricular activities, said Mark Bauer, Yale’s assistant director of the Office of International Education and Fellowships programs.
“Athletics is probably something that still opens doors in certain states,” Bauer said. “There are bound to be some state chairmen who take the terms of the Rhodes more literally.”
He added that by the time the competition advances to later rounds, standardization of criteria eliminates preferences.
“Demonstrated success in athletic competition is a plus — a relatively small plus, but it’s still a plus,” Gerson said. “However, lack of demonstrated success in athletic competition is not a minus.”
He noted that he attributes the recent success of Yale athletes in winning the scholarship more to coincidence than systemic preferences within the selection committees.
Bauer said the ideal Rhodes candidate does not have to be an athlete at all.
“There was a student who came in and said something like ‘Look at me, I’m a poet, and I don’t have an athletic bone in my body, but I’ve got energy to burn,’ and you could really see it was true,” Bauer said. “That’s the kind of student that can take full advantage of the weirdly familiar yet maddeningly strange environment that Oxford is.”
‘The scholar-athlete is not dead’
For Wells, a freshman walk-on to the soccer team, his intellectual accomplishments would not have been possible without his varsity experience. Though Wells did not receive much playing time, he said his fight to avoid the cut prompted even more discipline.
“Athletics helps you learn how to place mind over body,” Wells said. “There were some really dark days when I had to look in the mirror and decide if soccer was something that I could just slough off, and I found that I couldn’t.”
Shackelton said that running helped her discover her passion for science.
“In cross-country, workouts were followed by distance runs where I could have in-depth conversations with my teammates and learn about what motivates them,” Shackelton said.
She went on to say, “The time commitment really takes its toll.”
Maintenance of academics must also contend with the long hours many athletes are required to put in. Gerson observed that notably few varsity athletes in schools where athletics is taken more seriously have been able to win the Rhodes Scholarship.
“The time problem for an Ivy League athlete is probably an order of magnitude less than a football player at a school like Notre Dame,” Gerson said. “We still get football players but not that many from Division I schools.”
Gerson added there was no reason why more Div. I athletes could not win in the future.
Though Sharkey, Wells and Shackelton attributed much of their success to the rigors of their athletic background, all were in favor of placing athletics on par with other extracurricular activities that require large inputs of personal time and energy in the Rhodes selection process.
“Athletics is largely comparable to a lot of other pursuits,” Wells said. “The committees are right to move away from Cecil Rhodes’ exact words about athletics and to recognize people’s energy in participating in whatever it is that they are doing.”
Bauer agrees but said that the intellectual achievements of athletes should not be discounted.
“The scholar-athlete is not dead,” Bauer said.