There has been a debate over Yale student-athletes for some time now. We have heard the opinions of both sides, but each argument ultimately centers on an imaginary situation in which there are no student-athletes at Yale or other top American universities. This would be depressing. However, I want to talk to you about a place where this is already a reality: Britain.
You see, there are no recruited student-athletes in Britain. Admission to any British university is entirely dependent on your academic record. While this arguably means that the best students are attending the best universities, the lack of student-athletes has had an unusual effect on student life at British universities.
Before I came to the United States, I had heard of America’s insane passion for sports. I knew that entire stadiums were filled with students just to watch two college football teams play. I had seen the incredible facilities that seemed to be available on almost every college campus. Any of my British friends could tell you that if you wanted to play sports at university, you should go to America.
However, they wouldn’t say the same about the United Kingdom. Few British universities have athletics program that could match those at most American universities. In the UK, there are no stadiums filled with devoted student fans every time two universities square off against each other. In fact, there are almost no college rivalries to speak of. In the United States, most people can name a handful of bitter rivalries off the top of their head: Duke vs. UNC, Cal vs. Stanford, Michigan vs. Ohio State, and so on. In Britain, there’s Oxford vs. Cambridge, and that’s about it.
Even so, my friends at Oxford and Cambridge are rarely moved to support their university at any sporting event, except perhaps the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. They are surprised to hear that I spend most of my Friday and Saturday nights watching the men’s hockey team battling it out at Ingalls rink or watching the women’s volleyball team in Payne Whitney Gymnasium. In fact, rivalries in the UK have been reduced to the university league tables (our equivalent of the US News and World Report). Students seem more concerned about their university climbing up the rankings than moving up in the standings.
I am not suggesting that there is a lack of enthusiasm or respect for sports in the United Kingdom. Britain is drooling in anticipation for the 2012 Olympics and the country is obsessed with future glory for both its national football (soccer) team and Andy Murray, the number one British tennis player (and no. 5 in the world). The real problem with sports in the UK is that high school students are forced to make a choice between becoming a top athlete and a top student.
When I was applying to British universities, my teachers all told me the same thing: “Don’t mention rowing. It will hurt your chances of getting in.” I was shocked. It was repeatedly made clear to me that athletics had little value in my college education, so if I wanted to pursue rowing at a higher level, it would be better to set my sights on less academically-focused schools where there were excellent sport clubs nearby. In a sense, I was given a choice: be an athlete or be a student.
I would like to think that this is a misconception. I would like to think that my teachers were reacting to gossip and hearsay. However, my friends have confirmed just as much to me now that they are at university. Many of them have been discouraged from continuing their sports and many have either dropped out or only play socially. For those of my friends who did choose to focus on athletics, some regret what might have been had they ended up at Oxford or Cambridge.
Ultimately, I am not advocating for more or fewer student-athletes at Yale. However, I think it is undeniable that student-athletes have proven they deserve to be here. I would like to think that Yalies could recognize how Yale athletics have brought the school closer together. Anyone who has watched the men’s hockey team knows what I mean. If you don’t, please go to a game.
Some people doubt student-athletes, but the fact is that many of us are top students, too. And if you still don’t agree with me, then consider this: Yale offers me and all other student-athletes the choice of a first-class education and the chance to do what we love. Here, we don’t have to sacrifice either.
Jonathan Martin is a junior in Pierson College.