Yale should stop recruiting athletes. Nothing against sports — except that sports have nothing to do with the mission of a college as I see it.
A college is meant to cultivate minds. This is why Yale’s first concerns in admissions are the achievements, fertility and breadth of an applicant’s mind. Talent and diligence may earn success, but they won’t suffice for influence. Even very skilled practitioners require courage, amicability and integrity if they wish to lead in their fields. So besides searching for the best intellects, Yale commends applicants who have persuaded peers to follow them — as newspaper editors, student council presidents and captains of all kinds of teams.
Now, clearly, you don’t have to be smart to be good at most sports. Want proof? Just listen to what passes for English on ESPN. A star center is not a better candidate for admission to college because he is a star center. But math, poetry and chemistry? Those are intellectual activities. Prowess in them does require a good mind.
Perhaps you’ll say that the early mornings, the late nights and the trained calm required to excel in competition instill virtues that merit a boost in admissions. And yes, I concede to athletes praiseworthy grit. But an athlete needn’t be any good at her sport to learn a good deal from playing her sport. Anyone can drill herself — in soldierly equanimity — from dusk to dusk. She might not improve at all but still finish the season hardier than her ablest teammate.
This is one of the reasons parents insist that even their most graceless children play sports. Practicing helps you improve even if you’re not good. The same is true with persisting in an intellectual activity. Someone who isn’t good at algebra will improve by trying and failing to find x, even if she earns the same grade as the fellow who also can’t do math but doesn’t try. The first is devoted; the second is lazy.
And yet, Yale rightly doesn’t care to accept students who are dedicated but mediocre. There is nothing morally wrong with such people. Their lives will probably be better for their habits of commitment. They are, in some sense, more praiseworthy than those who succeed without effort. They are deficient only in the ways that Yale College most ought to care about, which are excellence and the promise of future excellence.
The main point is that every virtue or lesson acquirable in sports is acquirable in intellectual activities — activities that are far more pertinent than sports to Yale’s mission. And yet Yale continues, unofficially, to reserve spots for athletes. Everyone knows this. And this is in fact absurd.
It’s actually worse than absurd, because Yale must forgo scores of applicants who could get in on intellect alone so that its sports teams are filled. The Admissions Office presumably has academic requirements for athletic recruits. And then, in conjunction with coaches — who have sports and not academic excellence in mind — it finds athletes who will perform on the field. But would all recruited athletes be admitted without attention to their physical abilities? To the extent the answer is “no,” Yale assigns value where a college should assign none. And let’s have no talk of “holistic” evaluations of applicants. The only attributes that matter for “holistic” purposes in college admissions are those that matter for the purpose of a college. And sports fails the test.
Even more shameful is the special treatment afforded the athletic department in the whole admissions process. Why are the English, History, Classics, Philosophy, Chemistry and Physics departments — or, hell, the Yale Debate Association and the News — not permitted to recruit high school students? Yale could still be a great school if it never produced another good athlete. Actually, Yale could be a great school if it never produced someone who had ever watched a football game. Yet if Yale stopped churning out superb doctors, writers, scientists, lawyers, politicians and engineers, it would cease to be a great school.
I don’t think sports are a complete waste of resources or energy or time, especially for young kids. But a genius like Einstein deserves everyone’s admiration more than Tom Brady does. Sports provide benign entertainment. A team can unify a neighborhood and provide families with something other than work and politics to discuss at dinner. This is fine, but this is dust next to contemplation, art and worship — individual or communal.
The body must be mastered so the mind may be set free. A Yale education promises its beneficiaries knowledge of the proper use of this noble freedom. Those who wish for their minds to serve their bodies misuse the freedom and misinterpret the promise.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .