Growing up in suburban Long Island, athletics have held a central place in my life for as long as I can remember. In my hometown of Garden City — the breeding ground for over 100 state and national titles in lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, swimming, football, track and field — the successful student-athlete was viewed a near deity by others. “Smart and athletic” was one of the best compliments one could receive. It was almost a given that my friends and I would continue to aspire to this ideal beyond high school.
As such, recruiters flock to Garden City each year to craft their Division I and Division III rosters. Many of those chosen attend Ivy League or peer institutions, wearing their team colors passionately for four years both at school and back at home. I remember recognizing high school legends in Riesterer’s Bakery, their new varsity status displayed prominently on their sweatshirts.
It was then a huge point of pride for me when I came to Yale as a member of the lightweight crew team. The opportunity to carry on this hometown ethos seemed perfectly in line with Yale’s core values — the Yale Man (and Yale Woman) pushes himself to be the best person he can intellectually, spiritually and physically, right? Perhaps, but my years here have often taught me otherwise.
What I have found instead is a pronounced lack of respect for the Yale athlete. I know that many on campus are supportive of their athlete peers, especially now that President Salovey — much more friendly to the Yale athletic program than his predecessor — has taken the helm. Nevertheless, the inflated stereotype of the intellectually disinterested, socially segregated student-athlete persists.
Of course, these stereotypes aren’t completely unfounded. They arise not just from the dismissive attitudes of some non-athletes — they’re cultivated, in large part, by students like me. The attitudes of many varsity athletes on campus only fuel this harmful and disconcerting caricature, and it’s high time that we dismantle it.
Despite this culpability, it is important to address the unfair treatment of student-athletes by their non-athletic counterparts. As someone who participates extensively in both athletics and other extracurricular activities at Yale, I struggle to understand why the latter is uniformly seen as more honorable than the former.
When I’m rowing on the Housatonic, I’m experiencing the very fulfillment and accomplishment you do when you hit thathigh C in your a cappella solo. Just as you beam with pride when your Model UN team seals Best Large Delegation, so do I when my crew slides past Princeton to win on their own turf. In both spheres, the hours of disciplined and endless attempts at perfection are suddenly well worth it, and you feel your “reflex of purpose,” as John Tunis puts it, realized.
In the end, we both are putting in the time — the emotionally and physically taxing time — to give us the edge, fulfillment and growth that will remind us why we came to Yale. It’s why, when my teammates and I regrettably but reliably leave Wednesday and Friday night pregames early to prepare for a 6:00 a.m. practice, we hope this similarity isn’t lost on our friends.
But it’s time for the other half to pull its weight. We varsity athletes often blindly play into the very roles against which we protest. It’s true that many of us restrict ourselves socially, congregating in “athlete suites” and the same corner table at Commons. We’re often all too eager to pad our schedules with “Natural Disasters,” “Vikings!” and the like, those time-tested study guides floating around our panlists too attractive to pass up. And, from time to time, we do disparage students at Yale who prefer to spend their weekends in Bass, or who find their excitement in their assigned Nabokov reading.
Ultimately, for the damaging student-athlete stereotype to disappear, we, the athletes, need to be aware of the ways in which we affirm it.
So to all Yale athletes, step up. Strive for the student-athlete ideal, the one you came here to represent, the one I aspired to growing up. Don’t be afraid to wax rhapsodic about your Machiavelli seminar, remembering the “student” in the demanding student-athlete part you came here to play. In doing so, you will remind not only your teammates of this special balance, but also the Yale community as a whole. Let’s hope they take note.