UP CLOSE | Students or athletes?

A disproportionate number of student athletes are political science majors — 30 percent for the classes of 2011 and 2012.
A disproportionate number of student athletes are political science majors — 30 percent for the classes of 2011 and 2012. Photo by Victor Kang.

Men’s basketball forward Reggie Willhite ’12 had dreams of becoming an engineer upon enrollment at Yale. But he soon realized that engineering would require more time than he had available with his commitment to basketball and soon switched his major to political science. Wide receiver Chris Smith ’13 initially wanted to be pre-med, aspiring to a career in sports medicine, but he, too, found that the required classes were difficult to schedule around his athletic commitments. Like Willhite, Smith is now a political science major.

While political science majors make up 13.8 percent of the classes of 2011 and 2012, 30 percent of student athletes at Yale from those same years are enrolled in that major and, on some teams, that percentage is even higher. 42 percent of the football team is composed of political science majors. In men’s hockey, that number stands at 81 percent; it is 62.5 percent for the baseball team, and 86 percent for the men’s basketball team. Athletes interviewed said the popularity of the political science major among athletes comes primarily from its flexibility in course offerings and fewer credit requirements — 11.

“I quickly realized that [pre-med] was too much of a time commitment,” Smith said. “Political science was much more easily manageable with your schedule. … Sometimes I think it’d be cool to play football for four years and then come back and go to class for four years. Athletes don’t get as much out of it [academically].”

But athletes at other Ivy League schools have an easier time with scheduling. Princeton and Cornell both have three-hour academic free periods in the afternoon during which no classes may be held. At Columbia, athletes are able to preregister for classes before other students to ensure that their class schedules do not conflict with practice schedules. Yale has steered away from such programs.

According to Director of Athletics Tom Beckett and Yale’s NCAA faculty representative, Penelope Laurans — also the master of JE — Yale’s mentality is to treat athletes as it does the rest of the student body.

“Yale’s philosophy has always been to provide the best extra resources for all of its students and not to disaggregate one group from another,” Laurans said in an email to the News. “Athletes face special pressures. So might top students who arrive at Yale from under-resourced high schools and face Yale’s rigorous academic programs. So might international students. So might stunning musicians who need to spend many hours in practice or take lessons at some distance from Yale.”

Still, Laurans said the Athletics Department provides some special programs and accommodations for athletes, including dean’s excuses and authorized absences from examinations, or ABXs, which allow athletes to postpone final exams until the beginning of the next semester.

All 57 Yale athletes interviewed stressed the intense time commitment that accompanies participation in a varsity sport, which can add up to a maximum of 20 hours on the field each week. But that number can be higher when weight training, time spent in the training room and traveling are included.

Men’s squash and lacrosse player Robby Berner ’12, a political science major himself, described his commitments to Yale athletics as being “like a complete other class schedule” taking up to 30 hours per week.

Forty-two percent of last year’s football upperclassmen were majoring in political science. other sports see even higher percentages. on last season’s hockey team, 81 percent of players – all but three – were political science majors.
Forty-two percent of last year’s football upperclassmen were majoring in political science. other sports see even higher percentages. on last season’s hockey team, 81 percent of players – all but three – were political science majors.

“I spend more time with my team than I do sitting in class,” Berner said.


Chris Wlosinski, assistant director of athletics for student services at Cornell, said that while she does not think there is a large difference between varsity athletics and other extracurriculars, she does acknowledge that athletics do take up a much more significant amount of time than most other extracurricular activities.

“Student athletes spend a lot of time practicing and traveling,” Wlosinski said. “They’re the ones traveling eight hours to Dartmouth and getting back at 2 a.m. Sunday morning.”

Jacqueline Blackett, senior associate athletic director at Columbia, added that Columbia implemented early class registration for student athletes because it was the only way to ensure that student athletes could attend their desired classes without conflicts with practice schedules, especially since many of those classes have limited enrollment.

A former player on the Columbia men’s soccer team, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to reflect poorly on the Columbia Athletic Department, added that there is a registrar who works specifically with student athletes to make sure class coordination goes smoothly.

“If an extra spot opens up in a class, she’ll be the first to know,” he said.

Class registration for Yale student athletes can prove to be much more difficult.

Women’s volleyball opposite hitter Katie Cordell ’12 said professors do not give athletes priority for getting into sections, even if that section is the only one they can take with their practice schedules. She said she has sometimes had to forgo taking a lecture course that would have otherwise fit into her schedule because there was not enough room for her in the only section that did not interfere with her practice schedule.

Both Princeton and Cornell offer a free academic time period between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. during which time no classes may be held, according to Wlosinski and Diane McKay, associate dean at Princeton. Those three hours allow all students to partake in extracurricular activities without sacrificing their academics.

Dartmouth’s quarter system helps athletes manage scheduling problems by giving students at least one term per year during which they do not have to worry about when courses and labs are conducted.

Dartmouth’s assistant athletic director for student enhancement, Anne Hudak, added that because the majority of courses are held several terms per year, it is possible for athletes to pursue the courses they want while still playing a varsity sport.

Dartmouth heavyweight crew member Matthew Oatway said that the quarter system ensures that no majors are off-limits because of athletics.

Yale does not offer additional tutors for athletes, nor a student athlete preregistration program. It also does not have a period free from academics.

Joseph Gordon, deputy dean of Yale College, said Yale would be hesitant to implement an academic free time period because taking away the option of late afternoon courses would lead to even more concentration of course offerings than there is already, and would increase the number of early morning classes. He added that students would be reluctant to take early morning classes, and faculty with child-care obligations would be equally hesitant.

There are scheduling adjustments within the Yale Athletic Department to help accommodate for class time, including having an off day during the week so that students can take labs and afternoon seminars.

Tom Williams, head coach for football, moved practice to 7:25 a.m. in the morning “so that our guys could be full-time students in the afternoon.” He added that, with a morning practice time, the team could attend study groups, office hours and classes without having to attend an afternoon practice.

“I think time management is a crucial component to being in college,” Williams said. “The reason I can say that is because I’ve done it. It’s just a matter of being organized.”

However, Smith said while practice officially ends at 9:30 a.m., by the time he showers and visits the trainer’s office, it is a struggle to get back in time for a 10:30 a.m. class.

Smith said the practice day does not end there. Football players are expected to lift between classes. At 5 p.m., there are special teams meetings, which, he said, end at 7 p.m. at the earliest.


When asked about political science’s popularity among student athletes, Peter Swenson, DUS for political science at Yale, said the political science major is a flexible major that offers a lot of variety and choice. He said the major only requires 11 credits, and that up to three of these credits may come from outside the major.

“The distributional requirements are relatively small,” Swenson said. “We have five distributional fields, and you have to take two classes in each of three of five fields. There are so many ways to do that.”

Chris Stanley ’11, former member of the football and track and field teams, said another major reason for political science’s popularity is that it is an easier major with respect both to workload and grading.

Swenson did not agree with the student athlete consensus.

“That may be hearsay,” Swenson said. “It may be true, but I doubt they have evidence for that. Someone says something [about the major], and there’s a snowball effect.”

Not all sports teams are dominated by political science majors, speaking to a larger trend among some teams of athletes taking majors together.

Last year’s men’s track captain Marty Evans ’11 said once athletes figure out that their teammates are taking classes that fit within the practice schedule, they, too, will be inclined to take those same classes.

Evans added this element of camaraderie is no different from a group of suitemates deciding to be economics majors together.

“It’s just a friend group,” Evans said.

Heavyweight crew is 41 percent history majors, while that major makes up 9 percent of the student body.

Heavyweight crew captain Tom Dethlefs ’12, who is a history major, said that its popularity has a lot to do with scheduling. He said that while he wants to pursue both his academic and athletic career to the fullest extent possible while at Yale, if he is not at practice, the varsity eight can’t row. Because heavyweight crew practices between 3 and 7 p.m., taking a science lab, he said, is out of the question.

Alex Mastroyannis ’11, who was pre-med and a history major at Yale and is currently attending medical school, said that during his freshman year, the heavyweight crew captain inspired him to look into the history major. He said that while history could be an easy major, it is up to the individual student to challenge him or herself within it.

“You can get by doing much less work as a history major, whereas for a lot of science classes you have to do problem sets every week,” Mastroyannis said. “There’s no real way around that.”


Yet not all teams have dominant majors. And not all athletes shy away from science, either. Science majors make up 16 percent of athletes at Yale, while the percentage for the whole student body is 23.5 percent.

Field hockey back Lexy Adams ’13, a biomedical engineering major, said her team tends to pick classes independently. If a group of her teammates decides to fulfill a distributional requirement together, then it may pick a “semi-easier” class to take together.

The women’s golf team also has a variety of majors. Captain Lily Boettcher ’12 said the team’s nine members represented seven different majors.

Alyssa Roland ’11, former captain of the team, said that diversity also held true during her time at Yale.

“We were a diverse group of personalities,” Roland said. “We all went our own ways and we’re all independent people who took whichever classes we wanted. I guess if we were a larger team we would stick towards the same major.”

Kevin Limbert ’12, a mechanical engineering major on the men’s ice hockey team, said he always had an interest in the subject.

“Before I came here, I was always interested in working on cars, engines, and tinkering around and fixing things,” Limbert said. “It was a natural step to put some theory behind it and move forward [with the major].”

Limbert said while he does not have a lot of free time, he has been able to adjust his schedule to accommodate for his work- and time-intensive major. Limbert said because the hockey team has Mondays off, he has been able to take all of his labs on that day. He said he has had to miss class for hockey road trips, but that even then he has been able to get his assignments done on buses and in hotel rooms.

Limbert, one of three non-political science majors on last year’s team, said he chose engineering because he had a sense of what he wanted to do after Yale. His two fellow non-polital science teammates wanted to leave the doors open to career opportunities in various fields.

Geoff Dunham ’12, defensive back on the football team, added that sleep can be scarce with his mechanical engineering major, especially with morning practices, but that his interest in the subject makes it worth it.


Indeed, not all of the athletes interviewed found that the time constraints of athletics put an undue burden on their academic pursuits.

Chris Stanley ’11, a member of both the football and track and field teams, said he did two sports and two majors, philosophy and economics, and that it was possible so long as he managed his time.

Unlike Smith, he said moving football practice to the morning did help him take all of the classes he wanted to take. He said it came down to the beginning sophomore year and planning the next three years of his Yale education.

Matt Miller ’12, midfielder on the men’s lacrosse team, added that most people at Yale are involved in an extracurricular of some sort. The only time he felt the time constraints of being an athlete was at the end of the semester, when his team is expected to practice.

“Exam week is hard,” Miller said. “That’s the only time I really feel it.”

In fact, while some athletes were excited by the thought of a free academic period or student athlete-specific tutors, others took such resources as superfluous and detracting from the Ivy League experience.

Jack Pretto, a swimmer at Harvard, said he wanted to go to an Ivy League school because he liked how there weren’t as many athlete-specific resources.

“The more resources there are for athletes, the more time you’re an athlete rather than a student,” Pretto said.

Ultimately, softball player Meg Johnson ’12 said, the best resources for student athletes at Yale are older team members.

“The best advice I ever heard was from a senior on my team when I was a freshman,” Johnson said. “I was in a class with her, and she said, ‘For a girl that never shuts up, you gotta find your voice in class.’ She’s right, and I did. You just have to find your support system.”


  • phantomllama

    The graph on the front page is wrong.

    • CVazquez13

      The graph seems to have been changed on the website to be corrected. lnteresting stats but not surprising.

  • RexMottram08

    The dirty secret: outside of the hard sciences, Yale isn’t difficult.

    Yale kids are regularly tested under more difficult situations in athletics, music, debate, etc.

    I love the Poli-Sci department head in utter denial about the state of his major.

  • smartypants79

    the article says that “yale does not offer additional tutors for athletes, nor a student athlete prereigstration program.” Why on earth should it? If athletes are accepted here also on the basis of their intellectual abilities, they shouldn’t need special tutoring just for them.

    This whole article seems to be coming from the point of view that athletics are really the priority and that the school should accommodate the sports’ schedule. How about this–why don’t the athletic ept and the coaches recognize that it’s more important for their students to get an education and maybe not have them in 30 hours of training a week?

    Also the graphs on the front page are pointless. Based on it, it looks like there are a disproportionate number of English, Engineering and “other” majors, while pol-sci, econ and history are in line w. the larger community.

    • RexMottram08

      The quoted sentence was offered as a comparision to other universities. It is quite common to find such resources allocated to athletic teams. It did not suggest that Yale should do so but it is an important contextual note.

      Trust me: Yale athletes are learning far more in competition than they are in Yale history, poli-sci, & Women’s Studies classes.

      • Yale12

        Yeah, who cares about history or politics? They’re not at all applicable to life outside of Yale.

  • JohnnyE

    This is really more of a condemnation of political science than anything else.

  • phantomllama

    The attack on Political Science is profoundly wrong. Those seeking an ‘easy’ major are able to construct it more easily in a large department, since proportionately more introductory level lecture courses are bound to be offered.

    Serious Political Science majors take many advanced seminars that are just as difficult as anything any other department throws at its students. Talk to some real majors before doing a cheap hatchet job, YDN.

    • Yale12

      It’s not an attack on polisci. It’s a presentation of the facts, which happen to make polisci look not so good. If you have a problem with the YDN reporting on facts because it makes your major look bad…

      • phantomllama

        Read the graph on today’s front page and then tell me that the YDN are ‘reporting on facts’.

        You didn’t answer any of my points, by the way. The reality is that athletes are disproportionately found in larger majors, like Political Science, Economics and History, for the reasons I expressed above.

  • Yale12

    How interesting that most of the teams with majority political science majors are men’s teams. You’d be hard-pressed to find a women’s team that has 80% of its members in one, easy, major.

  • gradalum

    If a student athlete (or any student) is biased toward choosing certain classes because of their reputation as less academically rigorous, that is one thing. If s/he is forced into making that decision because the classes s/he would prefer to take are all incompatible with the athletic schedule, that is a very different issue.

    Athletes should be held to the same academic standards as other students, but shouldn’t they also be given the same opportunities to succeed? I actually heard a professor say once that he intentionally holds his courses during the late afternoon hours specifically so he doesn’t have to deal with athletes. If practices like this are occurring, this is a form of discrimination, and it would not seem unreasonable for student athletes to have a special liaison or advisor to help them navigate these issues.

    Finally, I would love to see the YDN do an article on the hypocrisies of rules varsity athletes are held to versus members of other high profile extracurriculars. To me it seems fundamentally wrong that a member of the Whiffenpoofs is allowed (no, encouraged) to take a year off from classes to devote themselves fully to their extracurricular. Varsity athletes, on the other hand, are required by NCAA to maintain full-time status and a minimum GPA in order participate in their sport. So before getting all high-and-mighty about how athletes get special treatment and take easier course loads, I suggest taking a long, hard look at some of the other practices at this school.

    • claypoint2

      These strike me as valid points.

    • xfxjuice

      I don’t think I could have said this any better myself.

    • SM12

      And sorry, but the Whiffenpoofs who take a year off from Yale to serve the Whiffenpoofs are just idiots. What do they expect, to actually develop this into a career in a capella singing?

      At least the football players have a 0.1% chance of actually turning their varsity athletic experience into a NFL career.

  • Accountant

    I’ll bet that, at every Ivy League school, athletes are generally not majoring in the hard sciences. That speaks to how difficult it is to maintain a lab schedule while practicing in the afternoon.

    On the other hand, I’ll bet that Political Science is disproportionately over-represented among Yale athletes compared to majors pursued by other Ivy athletes. That speaks to the nature of Political Science at Yale. It’s the closest thing to a gut major here.