JANES: Community fans give college sports relevance

I’ve always thought the value of sports to be self-evident, a fact wholly and blatantly obvious. Not something that can be quantified in dollars, nor accurately explained with words, nor proven with a well-crafted argument. Which means, I guess, self-evident can also be translated as “tough to prove.” As certain as those who see the importance of sports are about that significance, so certain are those who believe them childishly futile and just simple games.

The differences between those two groups are as pronounced at Yale as anywhere. And here, where our teams rarely compete for big-money national titles but still have loyal fans, where our athletes gain no athletic scholarships but sacrifice time and health to compete, here — more than anywhere — one can see the true value of sports. Which is ironic considering general sentiment around Yale is that sports are no longer relevant to the University community. But if not to professors, dignitaries or some students, Yale sports do still matter to this community as they do in so many communities around the country. Regardless of those who say they are a waste of energy, money or interest, collegiate sports matter for reasons more guttural than tangible, but powerful nonetheless.

Only a handful of college athletic departments across the nation made any money from those programs last year. Yet those programs endure, donors continue to give, and interest in NCAA sports grows every year. Sure, the purity of college athletics isn’t what it used to be, but the appeal of amateur athletes putting themselves on the line for schools that represent communities and alumni bases remains. Actions speak louder than words, and interest in college athletics is growing — not dwindling — as athletic departments spend more and make little. The value of collegiate athletics, then, goes far beyond the rational.

That value lies in the fact that college athletics give sports fans and their communities something they can’t get anywhere else. So often, college teams represent towns or cities that aren’t professional sports markets. And even college teams in pro cities provide a more affordable, accessible option than their detached, professional counterparts. Their schools are inextricably intertwined with the community, whether as employers, via their facilities, or even just as a stop on someone’s walk home. Student-athletes interact with the community whether formally or not, and many actively reach out. College athletics give their communities something to root for and be a part of, and in most cases, college athletes become representatives of those communities more than professionals do. They also serve as the object of far-off awe, criticism, or adoration, just like professionals. There is no doubt which of those relationships means more to the people involved in them.

At Yale, the ties are just as strong. As the University says it hopes to reach out and positively influence the New Haven community, its best and most deeply entrenched way of doing so is through athletics. Yes, Quinnipiac and Southern Connecticut and other surrounding colleges have athletic programs. And yes, some people in the area probably follow those teams. But most feel a sentimental pull toward Yale. Our tradition is unparalleled, our visibility tremendous, and our place in the athletic scene of Southern Connecticut greater than we often remember. They may not be painting their bodies at every basketball game or filling the Yale bowl for every football game, but Yale fans in our community are as devoted and informed as any I’ve seen anywhere. Whether they work around the school, pass by on their way to work, or grew up coming to games, people in this community follow and love Yale sports, and, as parents and friends of athletes come and go, provide an enduring and passionate fan base.

One Yale hockey fan, for example, has been a season ticket holder for 12 years. He told me he’s stood at the same spot at Ingalls Rink for every Bulldog game he’s attended since 1972. He was there for the tougher times in Yale hockey history, just as he was for recent successes.

Or take the 11-year-old aspiring Yale women’s hockey player who joined me in the press box for a few women’s games this season. A part of the Yale youth program, she was always proudly wearing her Yale jersey while rattling off the names of all her heroes on the team. She told me she wanted to play Division I hockey when she got to college, but mostly just wants to play at the school she grew up admiring — she’s inspired by her dream of playing hockey at Yale.

Then there’s the two fans who sit in the next-to-top row at John J. Lee Amphitheater for almost every Yale basketball game, men’s or women’s. Those guys can tell you more about Yale basketball than the players or coaches can, and they have seen their share of rough outings along the way. But they will probably never forget the women’s team’s epic upset of then-ranked Florida State last season, or the men’s victory over Harvard on senior day 2011. They may not see their team make a run to the Sweet 16 or a headline on ESPN, but they’re there for the little moments. They’re passionate about a team that is theirs because it is a part of their community, and they a part of its history.

Numerous Yale football-goers have told me how their fathers used to bring them to the bowl back in the days of Carm Cozza, and before, when they could watch Yale football compete year in and year out for Ivy League titles. There are Yale baseball fans that remember the days of former major leaguer Ron Darling as well as the play of the newest big leaguer Ryan Lavarnway.

These devoted fans range from interested locals to Yale staff, former Yale athletes to former members of the Yale Precision Marching Band. But what ties together them is an appreciation for Yale sports and their tradition, and a concern over the future of both. In taking steps that put that future in ominous peril, Yale is taking something from the community that is not theirs to take: a tradition that is not just one team’s or one school’s, but a community’s. Yale athletics matter, and they matter to more than just me, more than to Yale athletes, or more than to the athletic administration, an administration trying to salvage what it can of that tradition in the face of challenging policy circumstances. No, this stuff matters to this community, a community full of hundreds or thousands of people who see something in this whole college sports thing. A community who has helped sustain and support this school for centuries. A community that knows best.

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