The recent controversy on the pages of the Yale Daily News over whether athletic recruitment has a place at Yale has divided Yalies into two false categories — intellectuals and jocks. This segregation seems more like a bad episode of “Saved by the Bell” than a debate over the merits of athletics. The athlete plays an essential role in the University, as he has since the mid-19th century, and should continue to be actively sought and supported.
The important question is not whether Yale’s admissions standards are fair, since the admissions pool often includes a number of academically qualified students who receive entry based on their extracurricular interests and talents. A more pressing question is why athletics are so important for the University, and what accounts for the recent division among students? The answer lies not in the intellectual quality of athletes, but in the professionalism of Yale sports.
During the early days of Yale, athletics were frowned upon. The 1795 College laws state that “If any Scholar shall play at hand or foot-ball in the College-yard, or throw any thing against the College-buildings or fence, which they may be in danger of damage, he shall be fined eight cents.”
With the advent of rowing clubs in the early 19th century, students began to engage in athletic activity on a competitive level. Taking their cues from rowing clubs that already existed at Oxford and Cambridge, Yale gradually started to support such activities. Athletics provided a source of pride, physical fitness, and, most significantly, a means of establishing fellowship among students.
According to former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti — who would become the commissioner of Major League Baseball — the prominence of sport at English public schools, whose tradition American colleges inherited, taught that “victory is ultimately less important than the common experience of struggling in common.”
This muscular Christian ethic rested upon the belief that the discipline and dedication inspired by athletics was as valuable as the discipline that studying Latin provided. Loyalty, honesty, leadership, and commitment grew out of athletic competition.
Sports maintained amateur status for some time. Walter Camp, the founder of American Collegiate Football, never “officially” served as a coach. Students would pile off trains straight from Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville and attempt to join the football team which, unlike today, was run almost exclusively by students.
As such, student interest in athletics was quite prominent.
In a time before residential colleges, athletic teams, like literary societies and eating clubs, provided a competitive and fraternal outlet for students.
Gradually, though, as college athletics became more important for students and more widely viewed on the national level, colleges developed training regiments and stronger recruiting systems. The once-amateur competitions became more intense.
The Ivy League was founded to curtail the growing professionalism of athletics. Whereas students at Big Ten schools may be expected to engage almost exclusively in athletic activity, Ivy League athletes cannot excuse themselves from academics. Indeed, officially, there are limits on the amount of training per week, which may or may not be honored.
Yale athletics currently occupy a position somewhere between amateur and professional status. Giamatti once warned that Yale should never recruit athletes as a group separate from the college, but as parts of a unified community. He said that “as a sign of its commitment to athletics, Yale will treat athletics according to the same central educational values and with the same desire to excellence that it brings to its other essential parts.”
The disadvantage of the professional model is that it largely takes away from the muscular Christian ethic that pervaded the College as a whole. The squabbling between the so-called intellectuals and athletes is indicative of an unhealthy division on campus. No solution, however, will come from questioning the intelligence or dedication of Bulldogs.
In order to maintain interest in Yale athletics, it would seem impossible to return to an amateur model that fostered the Old Yale ethic. Still, Yale must dedicate itself to healing this rift by investigating the extent to which the professionalism of varsity athletics may have harmed campus unity.
Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.