JANES: Revisiting the state of Yale sports

A few weeks ago, I expressed concerns about the state and future of Yale athletics in light of self-imposed recruiting restrictions and the administration’s growing dismissal of athletics. These factors are crippling a once-exemplary athletic department that will, in my opinion, soon be fighting for its Division I life.

But I come this week with good news: all is not lost. The solution, as I see it, is simple: First, the university must remove the extra, Yale-specific recruiting restrictions that are both demolishing Yale teams’ numbers and hindering coaches’ abilities to recruit the best of the best. Second, the University must begin to show actual support for the Yale athletics program, and that starts at the top. No, I don’t mean financial support, although that’s always helpful. But I don’t think that’s the problem: instead, I mean support in terms of the attitudes expressed towards athletes and their place in this University.

The way I see it, those two simple steps would help Yale regain its footing on the slippery slope to mediocre athletics. By following these steps, the Yale administration can prevent over a century of athletic tradition from quickly becoming nothing more than history.

But the issue is a treacherously complex one: The prevailing notion in the world of college athletics at schools including (but certainly not limited to) Yale is that full-fledged support of athletics means a denigration of academic standards. But look straight to Harvard, Princeton and, by extension, Stanford, to see that the two are in no way mutually exclusive. Without a change, Yale’s program will demonstrate that such notions of exclusivity are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The belief that athletics preclude academic prestige undercuts the potential for athletic success. Success is necessary to draw the best all-around student-athletes, so if the University harms its potential for success in athletics out of fear of a dropoff in the classroom, it does, indeed, force a choice, rather than a coexistence of both models of success.

Yale’s first step to avoiding this tragic fate is simple: Abort the policy diminishing the number of recruits allotted each team. A mere 13 percent of Yale’s student body is varsity athletes, less than any other school in the Ivy League. It is both pretentious and unnecessary to put our school above the broadly-accepted Ivy League regulations regarding the number of allowed recruited athletes. These regulations already require a degree of creativity from coaches to stay competitive. While the ultimate goal for Yale athletics would be a rise to relative national athletic prominence, which Harvard and Princeton are currently staging, step one is to reestablish a competitive, championship stature across the board in the Ivy League. It is impossible to do this when our coaches and athletic administrators have their hands tied by a policy seeking to reduce the number of recruited athletes coming to New Haven beyond even Ivy League regulations.

If the idea behind the move to reduce the number of recruited athletes comes from the notion that they are somehow diminishing the academic prestige at Yale, that idea is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Recruited athletes in the Ivy League meet those standards to ensure they can excel academically. Predicting what they will do in the classroom once they get there is just as difficult as it is for any other admitted student, or just as hard as predicting how a recruit will do on the field: Create an environment of support and provide the best resources possible, and an institution gives any student the best chance to succeed. Non-athletes at Yale are getting those resources and not being marginalized for the extracurricular endeavors. And all Yale students receive tremendous academic support. If the University would acknowledge athletic achievements as contributions just as important and hard-earned as those in other forums, athletes would find themselves in a much better environment for all-around success — not marginalized.

Speaking of support, that brings me to the second part of my solution. The administration isn’t fooling anyone in showing up to a few athletic events a year and singing the school song with the Yale Precision Marching Band in some semblance of empathetic appreciation for what the players on the field or ice do to be there. The distinction between token displays of support and genuine interest is conspicuous and palpable to athletes, coaches and the athletic administration, especially at a school where the student body’s general consciousness of the athletic scene is not as strong. There must be an understanding from the people at the top that what athletes devote themselves to — with their time, minds and bodies — is just as noble as any other extracurricular activity. The administration has created a stigma against athletes that only fosters a hostile climate for them. Yale has created a divide that not only is unwarranted and ignorant, but neglects the numerous and valuable contributions athletes make off the field. Look at what athletes are doing in labs, with research, and in their coursework, all while being told — in not so many words — that they don’t belong here. Some thanks for the people who, bearing the University’s name across their chests as they sacrifice to earn victories for Yale, are often the University’s most visible representatives.

Notice I haven’t touched even touched the question of monetary support. Admittedly, budget cuts have been crippling to the Athletics Department, but it is one of many departments here dealing with the similar strain. If finances were the only problem facing the athletic department, it would be on a level playing field with nearly the entire country of athletic departments in that way. Create a Yale climate amenable, not hostile, to athletics, and let success, and the accompanying financial support, follow. Financial support is often out of the control of those in administration, subject to outside donors and the economic climate. Other support, as shown by respect for athletes’ efforts and a willingness to give coaches every opportunity to build their programs, is completely within the University’s control.

I’ve heard the arguments: Yale is first and foremost an academic institution, so to use athletic achievement as a major contributing reason for admission or as a noteworthy component of a student’s collegiate achievement loses sight of what the school is about. Why, then, consider any extracurriculars at all? Why music? Why dance? Why drama? Why student government? What do any of those tell you about a student’s academic potential? Why not just look at grades, class selection and standardized tests?

Because they don’t tell the whole story. Yalies are Yalies because they are excellent in the classroom, but Yale is not high school, and success here — whether on stage, in the classroom, or on the field — is the result of a work ethic, organization and passion evident in the kind of commitment to athletics a high school student must make to garner attention from Division I coaches, including Yale’s. As such, to decrease the number of recruited athletes at Yale is a choice to filter a group of applicants who have proven they possess the tools for success in a highly competitive and intense environment like Yale through their commitment of hours upon hours of training, travel and game play to pursuit of their athletic goals. Remedying the challenges facing the Yale Athletics Department, then, would be simple with some measure of respect for the efforts of athletes. If the playing field were leveled for Yale coaches with the same number of spots for recruited athletes, and if those athletes were shown the same support and backing from their University that is evident elsewhere, Yale athletics could reverse the decline that has threatened its proud tradition in recent years.