Athlete-artists: The clash of two worlds

At the beginning of this year’s football season, the team coaches divided their 116 players into groups by major so that the upperclassmen could advise new players regarding the classes they should take. But as 200-plus pound freshmen gravitated toward the economics and political science majors, defensive end Jarren Simmons ’09 could not find a group.

Simmons is one of a handful of varsity athletes who are pursuing an Art major at the same time as an Ivy League Championship. For Simmons, and for the other athletes who pursue the arts, combining the two interests requires a delicate balance, whether in the classroom, on the stage or out socializing.

Lacrosse player Elizabeth Friedlander ’07 said she chose Yale over the other schools trying to recruit her because the University demonstrated a unique willingness to help her pursue her interest in architecture. Friedlander’s desk on the seventh floor of the Art and Architecture building is emblematic of her different commitments: the surface is covered with razor blades and model glue, while the pile of snacks beneath — pecan crunch Nature Valley granola bars, Zone Perfect bars and Silk soy milk — reflect the lifestyle of a varsity athlete.

Double-majoring in physics and architecture while also playing varsity lacrosse and singing in the a cappella group New Blue, Friedlander is in an even more precarious position than most artist-athletes in terms of time commitments. But she must also straddle four different social groups with four distinct reputations.

“There’s definitely a different culture for athletes and for a cappella and for architecture students,” Friedlander said. “Individually, everyone relates to everyone really well.”

Dionna Thomas ’06 is a triple jumper who sings in the New Blue and dances with YaleDancers. She said her groups were all “very separate cliques.”

“Athletes tend to stick together,” Thomas said. “Of course, Toad’s is the athlete place to be, and we spend a lot of time in Commons eating food and being loud.”

So what do athletes, accustomed to spending upwards of four hours a day in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, think of Green Hall, the home of the art school clear across campus on Chapel Street?

“A lot of the guys thought it was pretty funny that I was taking photography,” lacrosse midfielder Kevin Discepolo ’09 said. But despite the jokes, Discepolo plans to continue taking fine arts classes, specifically sculpture and drawing. “I’m sure that if I had a show, plenty of my athlete friends would come to support me.”

At the Baker’s Dozen house, another lacrosse player Colin Neville ’06, also a film studies major, said there used to be more of a stigma associated with his singing. But now, he said, his teammates have come to be really supportive of his other extracurriculars, and almost the whole team attended the BD’s Spring Jam. Meanwhile, he also recruited a junior from the team to join the production staff of the movie he is currently producing, “Midnight Sun.”

Cara Kiernan ’07, who runs track and cross country and also dances in both Yale Dancers and Rhythmic Blue, said her teammates — and even her coaches — all come to every one of her dance shows and sit in the front row. Though her first commitment remains to athletics, she always knew she also wanted to dance in college.

“Some people really embrace the athletic identity, but you don’t have to make that your identity,” Kiernan said.

But even if athletes do not make the “athletic identity” their identity, they cannot help but stand out in the arts classes, whether it’s their build or just their Yale track jacket.

“There are definitely the art kids,” Discepolo said. “But I think everyone just kind of does their own thing, brings their own perspective.”

Neville stressed that classmates ultimately judge athletes on the quality of their work. Besides “Midnight Sun,” Neville is working on a screenplay for his senior project about two straight guys who go to gay bars to pick up women in the yearlong class “Advanced Screenwriting.”

“People might look at me a little differently, but I never feel like I’m being judged,” Neville said.

Many of the athletes added that this open mindedness was what attracted them to Yale in the first place. Kiernan, who was also actively recruited by Harvard and Princeton, said Yale won her over when the track coaches looked up all the different dance groups online to make sure that there was one that would fit her interests.

“Yale really does foster an experience where you can do multiple things,” Kiernan said. “They don’t tunnel you into being one type of person … you don’t have to be just an athlete.”

Friedlander voiced a similar sentiment. She had also been looking at other schools, but only Yale’s architecture program would also allow its students to be varsity athletes.

“That’s one of the things I really love about Yale,” she said. “That they’ll let you do what you want to do.”

Others, however, might disagree.

Football free safety Nick Solakian ’07 said he once wanted to be an architecture major but is now an Economics major “kind of by default.” Although he took two of the prerequisite classes for architecture — Introduction to Architecture and Drawing Architecture — time management problems and discouraging interactions with administration and faculty eventually made him switch.

“Coming here as a football player, most of the administration is expecting you to not be a good student,” Solakian said. “It’s like everyone was telling me I can’t do it.”

In the end, despite the architecture classes being two of his favorites, Solakian decided to focus on football since he knew he could always pursue architecture in graduate school.

Without Solakian, Simmons may be the only potential arts major currently on the football team. But head football coach Jack Siedlecki named several athletes who also sang or acted through extracurriculars in past years. In fact, Siedlecki pointed out that one of his former players, Kip Pardue ’98, managed to parlay his experience into a lead role as a football star in “Remember the Titans.”

For now, Solakian has stopped taking arts classes so he can catch up on Economics prerequisites. Simmons, though, is still going strong. Next semester, he plans to apply to Intermediate Graphic Design and, of course, continue playing football.

“Each is expression in some way … you have your physical form on the field, and the way you express yourself through visual communication,” Simmons said. “I could never see myself doing anything that wasn’t creative.”

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