“This is what college sports should be like. These are student-athletes,” proclaimed the father of a Yale club hockey left wing on Saturday night.
The students I saw skating clearly had mixed levels of experience, natural talent and competitive drive. But they were all out on a Saturday night at 8:30 playing in front of a crowd of less than 20.
The sight made me think: What if Yale had a compulsory athletic program? What if it was mandatory for every Yale student to participate on a sports team?
Even if this commitment were only an hour or two a week, it would still have visible benefits.
It would get every student some exercise. In an America constantly criticized for rising levels of obesity, this would be a program as innovative and progressive as the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Imagine 5,000 students each day flooding Yale’s gyms and fields, putting aside their schoolwork for a couple of hours each afternoon. Would it compromise Yale’s position as one of the finest academic institutions in the world? Or would it allow for a happier and more productive student body?
It would provide many students with an exposure to competition that they have lacked ever since they came to Yale, if not before. That’s not to say that Yale is not an institution packed with competition. But the competition found in an athletic environment is different, as it often requires a greater reliance on the performance of others than does the academic variety found in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
It would enable students to have greater exposure to the outside world. And by that, I don’t mean current events and politics. I know that most Yalies have plenty of exposure to that outside world. I mean literally traveling to places outside New Haven and interacting with students from other schools.
Moreover, a mandatory athletic program would force students to meet others with whom they might not otherwise cross paths. The club hockey team has both graduate and undergraduate students, Americans and non-Americans, and it draws its roster from every corner of campus.
After the first period on Saturday night, the team gathered outside the home bench. In his first year with the team, the coach bluntly told them they had had a lackluster period. It was a speech, expletives included, that would make most cringe. It was a harsh, but accurate, dose of criticism.
In the Yale academic environment, no one would ever receive such a performance assessment. If you get a paper or test back, and you didn’t do so well, you live through the worst of it just by looking at the grade. The comments generally suggest what you might have done better but are meant to encourage. In the real world, however, it is a rare boss that tries so hard to be so friendly. A poor performance is more likely greeted with a coach’s expletives than a TA’s encouragement.
Don Scharf ’54, who organized a Career Night for Yale varsity athletes on Monday night, would point out that athletics teach people to get back on their feet when they are knocked over. It does seem to be a lesson rarely learned in the classroom, especially at Yale where most students are exceptionally bright and do exceptionally well.
Admittedly, the criticisms of my program are numerous. First, you can’t force students to do something they don’t want to. To that I say: What are distributional groups? I don’t really like the prospect of taking Group IV classes, but I still have to. And the two I’ve taken, I’ve enjoyed.
“This is an institution of higher learning, not compulsory athletics.” I think I’ve already proven that there is a different type of learning that goes on in the athletic forum, but it is one that certainly prepares students for the next stage of life — something Yale has prided itself on since 1701.
The best criticism for this plan is that, without forcing the topic, Yale already has a very high level of athletic participation among its students. By some accounts, there are only three schools in the entire country with a higher level of athletic participation than Yale. They are the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and, you guessed it, the United States Military Academy. At those three places, athletics is indeed compulsory.
At Yale, there is enough interest to support over 40 club sports teams, 12 different intramural efforts each season, not to mention 30-odd varsity sports. Clearly, many Elis have already embraced the fact that participating athletically is an enriching experience. Then I ask: What’s stopping the Yale administration from taking the final step?
Just make everyone do it.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.