A friend of mine runs track. For the past year, she was on the disabled list with injured knees. Every morning at 6:00 a.m., she worked out in a pool to rehabilitate, though her doctors and coaches predicted her efforts would be futile. She beat their diagnoses and recently returned to racing. When we saw each other the other day, her eyes lit up when she told me that she was “again wearing the Y of a Yale uniform.”
Something struck me: My friend strived to stay on the track team, desperately so, knowing she faced a painful and uncertain road to recovery. Even now with a doctor’s OK, she is pretty uncompetitive. But she is happy, despite her lack of racing success and a year of brutal rehab. She cares about serving her team and Yale, both entities greater than her personal accomplishment.
My friend is not alone. Countless athletes practice daily, only to sit on benches for their college careers. Others play, but not quite well enough to see their names in the News. Heck, some whole teams continue to don uniforms when they barely win a game.
These athletes have a lesson to teach the rest of us, their self-absorbed peers. Unfortunately, our community has spent the past few decades in a cyclical debate over whether recruited athletes deserve space at Yale. As long as we focus on athletes’ academic merit (an irresolvable and pointless discussion), we fail to realize the message of service being displayed out on our fields and in our pools.
Many Yale students constantly shape our images by collecting impressive sounding titles. None of us likes to be a subordinate, so we start new clubs just to be the president of something. In our sprint to compile the best resume before graduation, we try our hand at Model UN. Even some of the “selfless” public servants in Dwight Hall are consciously building credentials so they can earn spots at prime NGOs post-college. (Consider this paragraph a partial self-portrait.)
Athletes are the polar opposite. Of course, they strive for individual achievement and recognition, too. But where most Yalies fear being cogs in a machine, varsity sports players embrace the ethic of belonging to a larger entity. Their vocabularies are peppered with words like sacrifice, team and community — and they usually mean it. When did a non-athlete ever use those terms on a daily basis? Yale’s mission statement declares that we educate leaders to “serve in every sphere of human activity.” Right now, though, it seems athletes are the best exemplars on campus of service for a cause greater than oneself.
These same athletes are often the subject of disdain in a Yale community that sees them as intellectually inferior, a stereotype that prevents us from appreciating their selfless service to a larger cause.
There is much mea culpa here. I once thought athletes had nothing to offer Yale, that they were admitted for skills that are worthless in an academic environment. I thought they were boors who populated the worst fraternities and coarsened an otherwise ideal community.
My former attitude represents the glib thinking of many students and administrators here. Over time, such attitude has created a glaring divide between varsity sports players and everyone else. Athletes bear some responsibility for the social chasm: Like many minorities under attack, they over emphasize their insular community, calling those who do not play sports “muggles.” Some transfer colleges to live with teammates and only socialize within a defined clique.
Moreover, the athletic community at Yale is not beyond serious criticisms. Too many athletes flaunt a form of anti-intellectualism as a badge of pride. Some particular teams and their extracurricular outlets (read: frats) need serious reform. These problems deserve acknowledgement and redress by the athletic community.
Attempts to bridge the athlete-muggle divide in our public discourse always fail. We play out the old arguments in dining halls or student publications, year after year: Some athletes are smart! Look, this one almost got a Rhodes. They really do belong in academia. They did not take spots from the more deserving. We confine the discussion to one simple question: Can the people in Payne Whitney hack classes?
Unfortunately, we cannot change the bottom line. Some recruited athletes aren’t as smart as their muggle peers. Yes, some did take spots away from applicants with better grades. But when we frame the discussion this way, we set ourselves up for an irreconcilable debate.
Lost in our conversation is the fact I learned from my friend on the track team: Athletes embody something integral to Yale’s mission that is not taught in the classroom — true service. They have a lesson to teach us all. We cannot learn from them if we think they have nothing to bring to the table.
The learning process is gradual. It is born when students accept lacrosse players as legitimate peers, despite eye-roll-worthy comments in section. It grows when athletes give up the word “muggle” and when groups like DKE change their public personas. It will flourish when we go to sports games to cheer, to watch, to learn.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.