Last year I published a column in the YDN (“Not jocks, just one of us,” Feb. 17, 2014) expressing my opinion that the accomplishments of Yale’s scholar-athletes should be viewed in the same light as students who excel in music, architecture, science, engineering or any other field. Being given All-Ivy honors is not unlike publishing a paper in an international science journal. Winning the Ivy League is no less admirable than performing in Carnegie Hall. Competing in the Olympics is comparable to having a book published. Winning an NCAA national championship is as hard as having a design chosen for a monument on the Washington Mall.
So, why is it that in many parts of the University community, athletic accomplishments, and those who achieve them, are not accorded equal admiration?
I suggest one possibility is that the mentors overseeing these endeavors have different status in the University. Students working on academic projects in the humanities and sciences are working under close supervision of faculty, while those pursuing athletic excellence are working with coaches. Faculty and coaches are accorded different status in the University. The Department of Athletics is viewed very differently from the Department of History. The pursuits and interests of faculty are accorded greater reverence than those of coaches, and this trickles down to how students under them are viewed.
When I work with a student in my research lab, we go over his or her experiments and I give advice on how best to proceed to get a meaningful result. After trying, the student comes back and, especially if there is a failure, we go over how to modify the experiment, rethink what we are doing, etc. I then encourage them to go back and try again. I use my experience and knowledge to guide and, equally important, act as a cheerleader to get them to get back in there and try again. As my mentor, who was one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, was fond of saying, science is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration.
Any coach could identify with the foregoing paragraph, as could any professor in the music school or the English Department. This is exactly what we are all doing in our various venues. Professors know that only a minority of their students will go on to be professional musicians, writers or scientists, but we hope that the lessons they learn from us will serve them in whatever they do for the rest of their lives, in addition to enriching their lives by having experienced a multitude of ideas and disciplines. This is no different from what coaches aim for.
From my work with the Faculty Committee on Athletics, I’ve come into contact with various coaches and have acquired a deep respect for what they do, their devotion and their respect for the mission of the University. At Yale, athletics is overseen by Athletics Director Tom Beckett, a remarkably devoted and strong leader who ensures, first and foremost, that the program adheres to the highest standard of ethics and traditions of a first-rate academic institution. In this, he is not unlike a dean.
The proper role of collegiate athletics has been called into question in recent years with stories of unethical abuse that are often shocking to those of us who have devoted our lives to the ideals of a university. I am proud to be at a place where, when it comes to athletics, we can hold our heads up high and have nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, quite the contrary: We have something to be very proud of.
Three weeks ago, I had what can only be described as a uniquely “Yale weekend.” On Friday, I drove with my wife to Manchester, New Hampshire, to watch the men’s hockey team compete in the NCAA tournament. As they do every year, the coaches had prepared the team to be at peak performance at the end of the season when it comes down to “crunch time.” We witnessed an absolutely inspiring, gritty performance and walked out of the arena with our heads high, even if with a tear in our eyes.
The following night, I was in Woolsey Hall and enjoyed an inspirational performance of Brahms’ “Requiem” by the Yale Glee Club and Symphony Orchestra. The faculty mentors had prepared their students for peak performance at “crunch time.” And it worked magnificently.
To borrow one of President Salovey’s favorite phrases, as members of the Yale community, we bask in reflected glory when fellow members perform so outstandingly.
Jeffrey Powell is a professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .