This column is part of a Friday Forum on athletics. Read the next column here.
“You don’t deserve to be here. You took the spot of a student with perfect scores.” “Don’t wear sweats because you don’t want to be seen as an athlete.” “Athletes get so much more. It’s not fair.” These quotes are examples of what Yale students have said to student-athletes, myself included.
These statements made me feel like I truly didn’t deserve to be at Yale. They made me want to hide my athletic side. They made me question why I cared so much about my sport. I struggled with these thoughts until I realized that other student-athletes felt similarly. I know many athletes who feel that there is a divide between the student body and the athletic community. I’ve tried to understand why this might be true. Perhaps some students here don’t enjoy sports or perhaps they believe Ivy League schools are exclusively for academics, not athletics. Whatever the reasoning, I hope to bridge this divide and bring a bit more understanding from an athlete’s perspective.
As a tennis player, I think I can speak for most athletes and say that we greatly admire and respect fellow students, but it hurts to hear comments stigmatizing the athletic community. Everyone at Yale is brilliant for many different reasons. We all have talents that distinguish us. We have one of the best debate teams in the country, our a capella groups are filled with distinguished singers and advanced math classes are populated with savants. For some students, their talent just happens to be sports.
Just as many students spend hours organizing performances, practicing speeches or conducting research, athletes are also spending hours weightlifting, training at the fields, studying strategies or doing extra sprints. But because sports are so time-consuming, student-athletes have a limited college experience. In terms of academics, many of us cannot sign up for afternoon classes that we want to take because of practice. When we travel for competition, we not only have to prepare ourselves by resting well and eating well, but we also have to make up the schoolwork we missed and complete the work that’s due when we return. On a social level, we have little time to join other extracurricular activities. We also miss countless nights out because of morning practices or weekend competitions. We’re college students, and we love to have fun, but we sacrifice many opportunities that Yale has in order to pursue our sports.
We also have to be extremely aware of our actions, as we represent more than just ourselves. We represent Yale. If an athlete makes what could be seen as a typical college mistake, such as having one drink too many, the consequences are amplified. One of the first lessons my coach taught us freshman year was to be careful of what we said and what we did because every action we took represented our program and Yale as a whole. If we’re not eating well or we went out on a night we shouldn’t have, then we’re not just hurting ourselves but we’re hurting our teammates. But it’s sometimes isolating to have to go to bed when suitemates stay up late chatting or getting ready to go to Woads.
If we become too tired of these responsibilities, we could quit any day. We are not obligated to stay on our teams. We are not bound to any athletic contracts. We receive no athletic scholarship. We could stop waking up at 6 a.m. We could stop showing up to grueling three-hour practices. We could stop training and exhausting ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. But we don’t. We don’t quit, because whether we’re stepping onto the soccer field or inside the hockey rink, we wear our jerseys proudly because we know the opportunities our school has given us along with the chance to keep doing what we love. We do it all for Yale.
You don’t have to come to a game if you don’t like sports, but all I ask is that you respect that we’re all working hard toward representing Yale as well as the star violinist or filmmaker. A lot of athletes seem unapproachable because they often just hang out with their teammates. But the reason we feel so close to other athletes is because we understand the difficulties and frustrations that are part of being a student-athlete at Yale. Still, athletes at Yale, myself included, need to do a better job of reaching out to other students. It’s a two-way street and we’d likely reach out more if we felt the general student body appreciated what we do.
We, as Yalies, all work hard for our school, and we all do it in different ways. I’m not trying to complain about our schedules or lifestyle. All I’m hoping is that after reading this, we can all have a little more understanding and a lot more communication within the student body. At a school that prides itself on an extraordinary residential college system, it would be a shame if any group of students did not feel part of our tight-knit community.
Ree Ree Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.