Of all the people whom Yale is known for — artists, scholars, Nobel Prize winners, U.S. presidents — athletes do not immediately come to mind. But while the days of Walter Camp 1881 captaining the Yale football team in the 1870’s and 80’s are long since gone, and the Heisman Trophy-winning seasons of Larry Kelley ’36 and Clint Frank ’38 seem like distant memories, athletics still play a major role in the education of Yale students.
Yale has not so much de-emphasized athletics, as it has chosen to restrict its sports program along with the seven other member schools of the Ivy League.
In 1945, eight years after Frank became the last Eli to win the Heisman, Yale entered into the Ivy Agreement. In keeping with Yale’s stated athletic philosophy, the contract prohibits Ivy schools from awarding athletic scholarships so that “intercollegiate competition … be brought into harmony with the essential educational purposes of the institution.”
While the Ivy Agreement ensures that athletic endeavors remain secondary, there has certainly been no departure from the “sound body, sound mind” philosophy that has governed scholastic athletics in America for centuries. Ivy teams still compete in Division I, the NCAA’s most competitive bracket (football competes in Division I-AA, one step behind the Notre Dames and Michigans of powerhouse I-A). And in sports of less notoriety, the most salient example being Yale women’s squash, Ivy teams routinely compete for championships on the national stage.
Working within both the framework of the Ivy Agreement and the cutthroat world of Division-I sports, the schools of the Ivy League are forced to compete on two fronts: academically against the small, liberal arts colleges of Division III, and athletically against the gargantuan universities of Division I. The eight teams of the Ivy League are thus in a unique position, operating in a world where sports are a vital component of liberal education but always a complementary one. Some schools have navigated this precarious terrain differently than others.
More than winning
The key, according to Yale athletic director Thomas Beckett, is not to let winning supplant scholarly pursuits. Beckett, who oversees everything from Silliman-Branford IM razzle-dazzle to Yale-Harvard varsity football, states in no uncertain terms that his job is to create the best college experience for student athletes, with winning being a goal but not an imperative.
“Clearly students come here with the notion that they want to be successful as an athlete,” Beckett said. “We would like to see all of our teams in the top half of the league. But the primary purpose of the college athletic experience is to enhance the undergraduate experience of the students involved.”
Conscious that in college sports victories often come at the expense of other, more important elements of the undergraduate experience, Beckett added that wins and losses are just part of the equation that governs decisions about coaches.
Bode Ogunwole is a sophomore heavyweight wrestler for Harvard. While Ogunwole, last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, is thrilled that wrestling and other sports at Harvard compete at a high level, he has seen the Crimson winning mentality permeate Harvard.
“I think other people in school respect athletes more,” Ogunwole observed. “People don’t treat you any differently, but they notice you more if they know you play a sport. The recognition’s better than if you’re in, say, a debate or something. There’s definitely a jock culture here.”
Last year Princeton was the winningest school in the Ivy League, claiming five more league titles than second-place Harvard. John Bennett is a sophomore lacrosse player at Princeton, where men’s lacrosse reigns supreme. The Tigers routinely dominate the Ivy League and have won national titles six times since 1992.
A preseason All-American heading into this season, Bennett has enjoyed great success with the Tigers but worries that sometimes the school stresses victories above all else.
“There’s definitely an emphasis on winning,” Bennett said. “If a team is pitiful for a few years, support [from the athletic department] will dwindle. We meet with the athletic department ,and they always tell us to keep winning. I think the department should make its focus making life accommodating to the athlete.”
Bennett said a recent example is telling of this trend.
“When I get out of practice at 10:30 p.m., all the dining halls are closed,” he said. “I go to school in Princeton, it’s a small town, there’s nothing open. All there is is Denny’s.”
Yale men’s soccer goalie Erik Geiger ’08 said he has had the opposite experience in dining accommodations.
“If we have a weekend practice and we miss brunch, we get like ten bucks to get a meal,” Geiger said. “There’s less of a demand put on us. I have to get to the field house at three and I get back by six so I can get dinner every time. Also, [men’s soccer] coach [Brian] Tompkins, and coaches in general, are more [understanding] if you have an academic conflict.”
Geiger did have a minor quibble with Yale’s athletics regime.
“I would like more free stuff,” he said.
Men’s hockey captain Nick Shalek ’05 said the athletic department’s efforts to accommodate student athletes extends far beyond meal plan compensation. And sometimes, he says, the department recognizes the roles other parts of the University have in guiding student athletes.
“It’s all about the students,” Shalek said. “They go to extreme ends for things like making sure we get covered on all meals, but they leave it up to professors and the actual athletes to sort out schedules. Coaches don’t want to interfere with a student’s academic life, so they communicate with deans. For instance, the dean of Davenport came to talk to us about an academic issue. The athletic department does go to great lengths to foster communication between the triangle of professors, deans and students. Those kinds of things go a long way. Athletes appreciate that.”
Wayne Dean is one of Yale’s five senior associate athletic directors. As part of his job he oversees marketing, ticket sales, sponsorship and sports information, but most students recognize him as the ubiquitous mustached overseer of men’s hockey, women’s hockey and men’s lacrosse operations, bustling about at the games of those teams.
“When I first got into the business, somebody told me that every decision you make, you should see how it affects the student athletes,” Dean said in his genuinely affable manner. “That’s kind of been my guide all along.”
Speaking specifically to his own work, Dean expanded his definition to include all students, not just student athletes.
“When we look at marketing, we try to get as many people into the events as possible because that enhances the student-athlete experience for that game,” Dean said. “Same with the student spectators. We want them to have a good time. That’s why we work with the band to create the atmosphere that’s great. We try to make it easy for students to go to events, so we don’t charge students.”
Fortunately for Dean, however, he is not accountable for wins and losses. Harvard (37) and Princeton (36) offer more varsity sports than any other schools in the country, and their teams have produced the most titles in the last year (11 for Princeton, six for Harvard) among the Ancient Eight. Yale has garnered two league championships in that span, women’s volleyball and women’s squash, and it currently offers 32 varsity sports.
Speaking to the issue of quantity, Beckett said that he is not envious of the size of Harvard and Princeton’s athletic departments.
“It’s not a goal to expand our program,” he said. “We just want to meet the demands of the students.”
The demands of the students — and the athletic department — are much greater in the cases of two Ivy teams. Princeton’s men’s lacrosse team and Cornell’s men’s hockey team are both national powers. The reasons for success in college athletics are great and varied, but the rule of continuity applies in all cases; if a team is good one season, it will have a better chance of being good the next. Thanks to recruiting, a program can perpetuate itself.
Why, then, is Ivy League football, so rich in tradition, no longer competitive with the nation’s top teams? It is the same reason why Princeton lacrosse and Cornell hockey can still compete; while the pool of hockey and lacrosse players is concentrated in only a few areas (Long Island and suburban Maryland for lacrosse, Canada and the upper Midwest for hockey and Northeastern prep schools for both), football and basketball are played at a high level virtually everywhere in the country, making the players of those sports much more representative of the socio-economic makeup of the nation at large.
Nevertheless, the success of Princeton lacrosse and Cornell hockey have led to frenzied atmospheres surrounding those sports. Bennett spoke of the extra emphasis put on winning in his sport, and Topher Scott, a standout freshman forward on the No. 2-ranked Cornell hockey team, speaks of his experience in Ithaca with such wide-eyed wonder that one might think he were the quarterback of Southern California.
“The education that the Ivy League brings, and also the competitiveness of the hockey, is second to none,” Scott said. “So pretty much you’re getting the best of both worlds. Here it’s unbelievable. The fans really support our team a lot. I’m having a blast. It’s a ton of fun.”
No different than Duke basketball, Cornell students camp out outside the school’s ticket office before season tickets go on sale, so perhaps it is understandable that Scott would feel like a rock star.
Last basketball season St. Joseph’s University, a small Jesuit school in Philadelphia, made an improbable run to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament. On March 17, 2004, USA Today published a lighthearted article trying to assess the value of Jameer Nelson, the Hawks’ transcendent star and that year’s recipient of the Wooden award, which is given to the most outstanding player in college basketball. Attributing it all to the exposure St. Joseph’s received because of Nelson, the paper reported that admissions were up 26 percent and that the number of students making visits to campus in the month of February was up an astounding 142 percent.
At Yale, there is no reason to believe a similar star player or a similarly successful basketball season would generate the same interest. On campus, students love to rally around excelling teams, but rarely do prospective students — those who do not plan to play sports in college — ever cite the success of Yale sports as a reason to apply. Admissions numbers cannot go up any higher, and visits are brimming with hopefuls seven days a week.
Giant Oklahoma University does not boast Yale’s academic reputation, but it does not operate like St. Joseph’s either. Last September ESPN.com followed Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione around Memorial Stadium as the Sooner football team, the bell cow of the school’s $55-million athletic operation, battled Oregon inside.
In constant motion, Castiglione looked like a frenzied party planner.
“We’re hosting a party for 84,000,” he told ESPN.com. “I’m just trying to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.”
While Castiglione made sure to suit the needs of each of the 84,000 people on hand that day obsessing over the Sooners, Beckett’s focus is primarily on the students.
“[Yale athletics are] not a profit and loss operation,” Beckett said. “The outreach part and those kinds of things are very important, but this is a University that is working to create the next generation of leaders in whatever endeavors our students engage in. And the athletic side of it is to enhance the primary mission of the institution and the undergraduate experience of the students involved.”