SCHWARTZ: Consider the academics of sports

In Thursday’s Washington Post, sports columnist Sally Jenkins challenged the entire structure of athletic programs in American colleges. Her argument is simple: Universities embrace music, dance, theater and art as legitimate academic disciplines. All of these are respectable programs that mix practical experience and technical skill with theoretical and historical study. So, Jenkins asks, why not treat collegiate sports similarly?

A central piece of Jenkins’ argument rests on a parallel she draws with the theater studies major here at Yale. After thinking about the way education here works, I find the argument quite reasonable.

We are (perhaps regrettably) no longer an academic institution committed purely to classical study and the training of religious ministers. Indeed, we have widened our scope exponentially, creating programs of study that are part technical (art, engineering and theater) or part political (gender and sexuality or environmental science).

Nevertheless, as long as these programs are anchored in familiar textual and experimental study of some kind, we view these slight deviations from traditional academic study as legitimate supplements to — and outgrowths of — real scholarship. It is difficult to find any reason why college athletics should be treated differently.

Of course, your average 10-year-old will think that studying sports, art and movies all sounds like a breeze. But that is because she has never taken technical drawing at Yale. Disciplines are only a joke if they are taught poorly, and the academic study of football can be as rigorous as anything else if taught by serious faculty.

Does coaching take any less skill or require any less training than directing a play? Is studying military tactics or “grand strategy” somehow more scholarly than studying football strategy? Are hours spent perfecting athletic techniques any less creditable than those spent taking music lessons or organizing test tubes? Most importantly, what message are we sending to student-athletes when we say that the activity to which they devote hundreds of hours can get Yale’s money — but has nothing to do with our academic mission?

As Jenkins rightly points out, sections of the Yale Theater Studies program description sound like they could be transferred wholesale to that of a college athletics program. According to the program’s website, the major “combines practical training with theory and history, while stressing creative critical thinking. Students are encouraged to engage intellectual and physical approaches to explore diverse cultural forms, historical traditions, and contemporary life.” A mix of “intellectual and physical” approaches? That sounds workable for athletics to me.

Given the Ivy League’s extensive history of intense involvement with varsity sports and the recent soul-searching about their place in this university (consider, for example, President Levin’s drastic reduction in the number of admissions slots reserved for athletic recruitment), it seems strange that no one ever considered working sports into the University as a regular discipline. So why haven’t we seen this happen?

The answer, I think, lies in a subtle but pernicious form of discrimination that permeates institutions like Yale. People with Ph.D.s feel perfectly comfortable standing around in suits, sipping expensive drink and talking to like-minded, wealthy people from Europe about the arts.

Sports are different. They have drawn the interest and passion of an entire segment of America with whom the elites who populate American universities have little in common. This is not to say that professors cannot be sports fans; but it is to say that for a great many of us, sports are momentary diversions, amusing past-times, guilty pleasures, a way to stay healthy, or — even worse — an opportunity to connect with the “commoman.”

All of these motivations are quite far removed from an appreciation of athletic excellence as a good in and of itself. And so I think academia’s exclusion of athletics has a lot to do with the fact that people other than academics — and even more importantly, people other than the sort of people with whom academics tend to hang out — enjoy sports. It’s a silly hang up and one that we should get over.

Yale strives to achieve a balance of interests and talents in its student body, and it never surprises us when incredibly talented people have areas of weakness. The stellar cellist with subpar writing skills and the young author who barely made it through geometry are rightly recognized for their talents and contributions. It is precisely because music and writing are recognized academic disciplines that we all intuitively understand these students to be brilliant. Let’s make sure we give sports the same path to communal respect. What’s more, Yale should lead the way in doing so.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at


  • xfxjuice

    Fantastic column.

  • The Anti-Yale

    What are sports FOR, anyway, Old Sport?

    They’ve become a grotesque aberration of their orignal purpose—- enjoyment, exercise, the aesthetic charm of beautiful movement, teamwork, the agony and ecstacy of defeat and victory.

    Now it’s just a Roman Circus of conspicuous consumption competetiveness.: DATA DATA DATA ( yada, yada yada).


    My televison is ashamed to be polluted by capitalism’s advertising orgy: American sports and the Olympics.

    • The Anti-Yale

      three years and a few thousand posts ago one of your peers accused me of being “off-topic”. I replied, “I’ve been off topic all my life.” I liked the insight so much I decided it should be my epitaph: “Off topic( all his life).”


      I thought the article was about the academic legitimacy of sports. I was merely pointing out WHY they have no academic legitimacy. They have been poisoned by competition,. The Greek ideal of physical beauty, prowess and dexterity, has little to do with college sports.

      Bulk up on steroids you lunkheads. Winning is what we’re all about. Go Red Sox. Go Bulldogs. Duh.

  • sonofmory

    @theantiyale – what is the point of your comment? Are your thoughts a reason that Yale should not embrace athletics as part of the academic tradition? i don’t disagree with your sentiments but they do not seem to have any relevance to the editorial.

    Yishai – This is an incredible column and I think you hit the nail right on the head.

    • The Anti-Yale

      OOPS! I put my reply to you in the wrong spot (above). Je regrette.

  • HighStreet2010

    Or, maybe the reason sports aren’t academic is that, unlike art, they are not something that has meaning beyond the game itself. Sure, sports are entertainment and it’s certainly interesting to place them culturally, and to understand the meaning of the game to the people who play. I think one of the classic gut classes, Sports Society and Culture, attempted just that.

    But what is the meaning of sport? Can you look at a magnificent bicycle kick and gain an understanding of humanity? Is an offensive tackle trying to communicate something about the human condition as he struggles to block the end? I would say no. These people are highly trained and playing to win. Sure, it’s beautiful to watch in certain situations and maybe this inherent beauty has caused some sort of confusion and made you think that art and sport are similar – but lots of things are beautiful and still not academic subjects.

    Some aspects of art do simply exist to create beauty (music for example) and I guess in that way, you could argue that the creation of beauty through sport is equal to the creation of beauty through art. But I would ask you if the goal of sport and its participants is this desire to create a work that can stand alone as “beautiful”, an accomplishment that is itself its own reward. I say no – people play sports to win the game and be better than the other guy. They work hard because they love that competition and the game that allows it, and if that creates beauty and wonder for the rest of the world it’s merely incidental (and by the way, pay me millions for it). But the goal is to win the game.

    Athletic ability is certainly something to be praised and sought out. So is the skill of a master craftsman – should Yale be offering courses on how to weld for credit? And really, what separates athletic ability from say, Starcraft gaming ability? And so we go on down the slippery slope until being really good at drunken jenga (hey, physical AND mental here) is worthy of study.

    The message we should be sending is that athletics are great and fun and so on – but really there’s no reason why they need to be affiliated with a University, other than for the University to put on some competitions with other schools aka school pride (which I hear exists somewhere). They’re lucky to get the money, lets stop there.

  • HighStreet2010

    Few other things – “the academic study of football can be as rigorous as anything else if taught by serious faculty”. Yeah, no it can’t, as its own subject. If you’re talking football in the context of something actually academic (sports in politics, sports in culture, sports in history) then sure it can be just as rigorous as anything in those fields. But academically studying whether to go for two when winning 13-12 just isn’t that deep a question compared to “what comprises matter?”.

    “part political (gender and sexuality or environmental science)” – Environmental science is political now huh. Probably just like nuclear physics was political in the 1940s? Just because something has political ramifications and general political interest doesn’t make it less objective.

    “People with Ph.D.s feel perfectly comfortable standing around in suits, sipping expensive drink and talking to like-minded, wealthy people from Europe about the arts. Sports are different.” – Wow. Really. Wow. For the record, I went to Yale and never did I think “sports are for poor Americans in ratty jeans drinking Bud”. Your characterization of “academics” is horribly stereotyped and actually pretty offensive. As is your postulate that “we don’t study sports because people we don’t like, like sports”.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    What HighStreet said.

    Also, speaking as an ex-varsity athlete, I can tell you that the *last* thing I wanted to do when I got home from practice was to spend time doing “academic study” of my sport in question. I think most varsity athletes would agree. Yale varsity athletes are at Yale (rather than at a real “sports school”) because they’re NOT just looking for a pre-professional sporting experience. Most of them aren’t even that good!

    That also points to another, more practical reason to have a theater studies major and not a “football studies” major. Yale College produces (through EC theater, leaving aside the major) professional caliber actors. We’re not a professional development football school, and haven’t been for a while. If you come to Yale to play football, you’re (a) not an NFL prospect or (b) so serious about (non-football) academics that you’re willing to *reduce* your chances of playing in the NFL to get a Yale (non-football) education.

    You also might be surprised to learn that only two of Yale’s four “arts” departments are in fact the way you describe (i.e. they provide pre-professional skills training alongside theory and history):

    THST and ART: Yes, sort of (but there’s plenty of theory/history).
    FILM and MUSI: Definite no. Both are totally theory/history: not production/performance.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    (that said, @High Street: Yale *does* offer a few craft classes for credit. I got 0.5 credits for learning how to machine parts and building a steam engine).

  • The Anti-Yale

    Here’s a telling anecdote. IAround 1978 Coach Carm Cozza told me he had trouble recruiting football players on scholarship because EVERY member of the incoming Yale class was Valedictorian of the high school class from whence they came.

  • Yale12

    @ PK: It’s not a telling anecdote because a) it’s not true – college admissions are FAR more competitive now than they were in the 70s, and not even close to every member of the class of ’15 was the valedictorian of their high school – and b) it doesn’t have anything to do with the legitimacy of sports as academics.

    What does “on scholarship” even mean? The Ivy League doesn’t give athletic scholarships.

    • The Anti-Yale

      Ask Carm Cozza, not me. I’m repeating a story told to me over a table at Patricia’s restaurant occupied by timekeepers for Yale track meets.Carm was our guest.

      If sports are influenced by the candidates available for scholarships it may have a great deal to do with the academic study of recruting behavior for sports. Let’s dumb down the recruiting pool at Yale so we can lure more talented athletes with scholarships.

      C.) It was about 35 years ago. Are you CERTAIN Yale didn’t give football scholarships?

  • SY10

    Paul, as someone who criticizes class privilege at Yale, surely you can’t believe that in 1978 Yale only admitted one student from, say, Andover?

  • Goldie08

    If you can get your APM up to a competitive level, Starcraft becomes like space chess

  • Inigo_Montoya

    > C.) It was about 35 years ago. Are you
    > CERTAIN Yale didn’t give football
    > scholarships?

    I don’t know about Yale12, but I am. The formal ban on scholarships (football and otherwise) dates to the formal incorporation of the Ivy League as such.

    *”The members of the Group reaffirm their prohibition of athletic scholarships. Athletes shall be admitted as students and awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.”*

    LINK (to the Crimson, I know…horrors! Sadly, the YDN’s archives aren’t searchable online):

    • The Anti-Yale

      Well, Carm said he had trouble “recruiting”. Maybe I inferred that to mean “scholarships”. ( I pay ABSOLUTELY ZERO attention to sports– and know even less about them!) The anecdote is still noteworthy: Every incoming freshman was a high school valedictorian. (How many of those were football prodigies?)

  • The Anti-Yale


    No offense, but “sports” is chewing tobacco for the mind —and its followers the spittoons.

  • JackJ

    Kinesiology, sports medicine, sports management (as in running a professional franchise not parks and recreation) are all sports related academic areas where graduates tend to make considerably more than your general liberal arts graduate, med school graduate or B school graduate. Coaching is teaching but most coaches put in many more hours than oh say an English or Math teacher. Additionally the performance of a coach is rated every time a team takes the field or court unlike that of a union protected Math teacher or a tenured professor.

  • JackJ

    @theantiyale: If you pay “absolutely zero attention to sports” how did you find yourself sitting at a table of track timekeepers entertaining one of the most famous Yale football coaches?

    • The Anti-Yale

      I ate breakfast and lunch in Patricia’s every day for seven years. I was also an occasional Yale track timekeeper, not because I followed sports, but because I was invited by the final generation of “live” timekeepers to join them. I wasn’t very good at it—–

  • InterestedInBiology

    But the anecdote isn’t noteworthy because it’s quite simply not true. Why do you insist on spreading a completely false story?

    • The Anti-Yale

      I have NO IDEA whether it was technically “true” or not. However, it was told to me and to a table full of Yale track timekeepers at Patricia’s by Carm Cozza himself, who often joined our lunches. (Note: Once I was left alone at the table with Carm and I told him” I’m a terrible waste on you since I know nothing about football.” he replied, agile gracious gentleman that he is, “It’s a relief.”

      The anecdote about all incoming freshmen one particular year being valedictorians according to Carm is part of my Yale/New Haven folklore legacy—-and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a folklore I have been disgorging in your pages for the last three years so it won’t entirely disappear when I die.

      I’ve dubbed it “legacy- neurosis”. Wait till you’re my age: You’ll be boring your grandchildren to death.


  • sonofmory

    @theantiyale: “PS:
    No offense, but “sports” is chewing tobacco for the mind —and its followers the spittoons.”

    you are casting a pretty wide net in who you are insulting with that term – some of the greatest leaders in the world, in a variety of arenas, are followers of sports. to say that their mind has been impacted negatively through this interest is asinine.

  • The Anti-Yale

    You think t’baccy is NEGative?