JANES: A transition to mediocrity

As athletics transitions into spring sports, Yale is in the middle of a much more wide-sweeping, and more weighty transition.

This transition extends further back even than the past decade. It is predominantly out of the control of anyone within the Athletics Department, and it has me, for one, very concerned: a transition to mediocrity.

Soon, even our best year ever will no longer stack up with ancient rival Harvard’s norm, nor Princeton’s, nor that of the rest of the Ivy League.

Grab your tickets to that 2025 Yale vs. Southwestern Connecticut State Division III rivalry showdown now, because that’s where we’re headed.

And it’s no secret why.

Since the 1993-1994 academic year, Yale has won 51 Ivy League titles. In that time, only Columbia at 33 and Dartmouth with 39 have claimed fewer. That year coincides with the start of a move by Yale University administration to reduce the number of recruited student-athletes. According to a Sept. 2010 interview with University President Richard Levin in the Yale Alumni Magazine, the Levin administration has reduced the number of recruited athletes from 17 percent of the Yale’s student body to 13 percent. Levin told the magazine he wants that number to go down even more. For those few slots Yale coaches are allotted for athletes, recruiting gets harder and harder as coaches’ hands are tied not only with stringent restrictions, but also by the obvious gap in Yale’s commitment to support its athletes when compared with other schools. Simply put, it won’t be long before we don’t stand a chance.

I am a huge believer in the power of work ethic: recruit hard enough, coach hard enough, work hard enough as athletes and you can compete no matter what. And that’s exactly what the Yale Athletics Department has been doing — to the tune of one of our best years ever and seven Ivy titles in 2010-11. We even bested the Crimson’s total of five titles last year. But that was the first time since 1993 that we’ve outdone Harvard in the Ivy title category and only the fourth time since 1993 that Yale has been in the top three in Ivy League titles in a season.

I see no better future for Yale in the decision to drive one of the most storied Athletics Departments in American history into the ground. I see a willingness to accept less than the best, a willingness to be average, and a willingness to commit to something other than excellence. Speaking as someone who loves and takes great pride in this school: that is absolutely unacceptable on any front.

Things wouldn’t be easy even without the extra restraints. Building a highly-competitive program in the only league in Division I that can’t give scholarships has always been challenging. League sanctions aimed at preserving academic excellence make things even harder, and Yale’s added restrictions will eventually leave the Bulldogs battling to stay afloat in Division I. This approach to athletics also suggests that we know something people at seven of the most prestigious universities in the country don’t. The academic prestige of Harvard and Princeton certainly hasn’t dropped off with the growth and these institutions’ efforts to let their athletics departments flourish in recent years. In fact (and it really does sting to say it), according to those oh-so-infallible U.S. News rankings, their academic prestige has surpassed our own.

Yale prides itself on being one of the nation’s best across the board. Not just in academics, but also in our newspaper, our arts, our music, our debate teams, our libraries, our faculty, our tradition. No one at Yale comes here to be average. No one at Yale got here by committing him or herself to anything but excellence. So why is the one exception athletics?

I won’t be drawn into answering that question. That argument has been waged several times, and regardless of the perspective, it’s always hopelessly polarizing. All I will say (at least this week … ) is that the administration’s distrust in the people they’ve put in charge of the Athletics Department to choose student athletes deserving of being here and willing to contribute positively to the Yale community reflects on the abilities of no one but the administrators themselves.

In my opinion and experience, the people the administration has in place in that regard do recruit wisely and tirelessly: they put countless hours and log countless miles in doing so. The fact that Yale athletes are accomplishing the Herculean task of overcoming their comparative disadvantage while maintaining high standards academically is evidence enough of their efforts.

Don’t try to throw the “reducing the number of recruited athletes means you’ll get people who just love the sport” argument at me either. Yale athletes — and Ivy Leaguers in general — can’t earn scholarships. They come to play here because they love the game and want to be challenged academically too. If an athlete wants to go somewhere where they can mess around for four years and grab a diploma, they can pick somewhere easier and cheaper to do it than Yale (and somewhere cooler than New Haven — let’s be honest). Similarly, if a recruited athlete decides to abandon ambition and mishandles him or herself, he or she is a) a rare exception in the athletic community and b) wouldn’t be unique amongst members of all groups across the Yale student body in doing so. I can say with relative certainty that the majority of the Yale athlete population is highly focused on success on the field and off it. No one comes to Yale to play and get famous. There are no motives other than high-quality athletics and high-quality academics: the same “excellent-all-around” appeal that draws the nation’s best and brightest in everything to New Haven.

Harvard beat up on us a bit this year. I’m confident we’ll reverse that trend next year, but doing so is going to get tougher and tougher. Yale’s prestige will suffer; our reputation for haughty elitism will harden, and the honor and privilege of being involved in the most prestigious rivalry in all of college sports will soon devolve into an embarrassingly one-sided token matchup, if that. We can be amongst the best and are choosing not to be. Anyone that is willing to let any department that represents this school be anything less than the best it can be is losing sight of everything Yale stands for. We (not athletes, not sports fans, but everyone who loves Yale) deserve better.

Passion for such success aside, and however much Yale athletes are trained to not make excuses and work with what they’ve got, University restrictions are eventually going to make staying competitive in an increasingly-ambitious Ivy League impossible. End of story. And end of a storied tradition.

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