Yale College students who play intercollegiate athletics should be treated with the same decency and respect as other students at the College. Unthinkable as it would be to make any other group of students feel unwelcome or to assert that any other recognized student activity is unvalued, Yale nonathletes frequently disparage our athletes. For instance, the News regularly publishes op-eds questioning the value of the University’s intercollegiate athletics program.
In fact, no students entering Yale College have as many good options as our student-athletes. No group is more successful on campus or as alumni. No group is required to manage its time as well or to deal with as many obstacles, which come in the form of inflexible training and game schedules, lack of access to professors’ office hours or even a lack of access to campus dining halls (their hours of operation often do not permit athletes to avail themselves of the meal plans for which they have paid).
While college athletics does not play a central role at every academic institution, it is deeply ingrained in Yale history. When Yale created a rowing club in 1843, it became the first university in the United States to offer intercollegiate athletics. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits, both reputational and financial, of successful college athletics. Colleges with successful college sports programs do better in recruiting non-athletes. High school applicants with better grades and better SAT scores apply and matriculate to colleges that win championships in football or basketball. Such victories are signs of institutional strength, not just in athletics but throughout the universities that garner them. Thus, it is unsurprising that colleges that succeed in sports do better in fund raising and boast happier students.
Even so, the benefits that Yale and other universities derive from successful athletics programs are vastly underestimated outside the athletic community. The Department of Athletics recognizes that its programs build school spirit and “create a common space for the student body” and that “they foster social cohesion.” As our community becomes more diverse, it becomes increasingly desirable to have interests and activities that bring different groups and people together. Members of the University community, including faculty and staff who have few points of intersection with one another, are drawn together by their love of Yale athletics. That is why those who truly favor diversity should support Yale athletics, where the sons of coal miners and the daughters of civil rights workers find themselves playing, spectating and pulling together for the common goal of victory on the playing fields.
First generation students, women and minority groups all are well represented on Yale’s athletic teams. The hundreds of student athletes from diverse or underrepresented backgrounds serve as focal points for all students, but especially to students from backgrounds similar to theirs.
It is difficult to find a sport that is played at the varsity level in which Yale does not have a storied, if not a pioneering history. It is a history in which we can all take pride in even as our teams continue to face growing challenges and more intense competition within.
Complaints about college athletics were not far behind their introduction. Since the 19th century, college athletes have been accused of allowing their “athletic exercises” to “interfere with their intellectual labors.” Their exertions on the fields, in the water and on the ice have long been thought, falsely, to “render students indifferent to their progress in class, or influenced them, when exercising their right of selecting subjects of study, to choose easy branches or to diminish their application.” To the extent that these sorts of complaints are true for athletes, they are no less true for the Whippenpoofs, members of Yale’s Senior Societies, the Precision Marching Band, actors and other artists, News writers, Model UN participants and countless other groups.
Yale athletes, unlike in many other schools, enter with their class and graduate with their class, participating fully as students every step of the way. At Yale our coaches are deeply concerned about our student athletes’ academic performance. Graduation rates are not a problem because unqualified students are not admitted. After they arrive at Yale, our athletes study as hard as they compete.
Far from observing sloth, we are observing young adults making difficult, often painful choices about how to allocate their time. Athletes, along with the students participating in all of these other activities, deserve our compassion, empathy and support. Yale would not be the same without them. Speaking only for myself, I can’t help but agree with the sentiment expressed by President Barnard of Columbia back in 1882: “I wish that I could persuade every student in the college to become a rowing man. I am sure it would do them all good.”
Jonathan Macey is a professor at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management. He is also the chair of the Faculty committee on Athletics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .