Our new director of athletics, Vicky Chun, has spoken of her mission as “making athletics an integral part of the University,” and engendering a greater “spirit and pride” in our sports. So far, Chun has made institutional changes within athletics — emblazoning the walls of Ray Tompkins House with bright banners inscribed with our slogan and placing the lacrosse national championship trophy in the hallway. These changes are a great first step. But they remain changes within the athletic community; that is, they work to foster a greater pride for athletics within our athletes themselves. This is only half the battle, and, I would argue, it is the less important half.
I hope Chun also works to foster a greater pride in our athletes within the student body. How can she do this?
It’s important, first, to realize that this issue is twofold: building both respect and enthusiasm for our athletes and teams. I sent about 200 text messages to many far smarter than I am to gather their thoughts. I spoke with athletes and nonathletes, Yalies and non-Yalies alike. And, I might have even come up with an idea or two on my own (see if you can pick them out.) The answers are intriguing and often insightful, sometimes hilarious, particularly from my buddies at Wisconsin and Indiana.
Let’s begin with the insight from my friends at state schools. We can toss out the enthusiasm question. One-hundred thousand people don’t show up at USC football games because they really think cardinal and gold look good together. The respect question, however, remains. And yet, at great state schools, these professional athlete factories have a completely different task at hand when addressing ostensibly the same problem. For them, athletic directors must demythologize athletes. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, athletes have to study in the biggest library, so as to actually be seen doing work by regular students: “No way!!! Melvin Gordon is taking my Aristotle course?” Wisco often has its athletes run conditioning drills on a giant hill as a way of opening up the workouts for the public to join.
These methods, of course, do not apply to us. Whereas, at Ohio State, the athletic director must bring athletes down to the level of regular students, Yale must raise them up to stand parallel with the student body.
In addressing the respect question at Yale, some of my friends think it starts with the athletic director herself. She should become a fixture on campus. She should show up at a capella performances and dance recitals. She should make it overtly obvious that she and Yale athletics are invested not just in sports, but in all of Yale. Reciprocal respect from and for her would go a long way in creating consideration among our student body for our athletes.
Many of the people with whom I corresponded harped on the necessity of emphasizing the academic and extracurricular accomplishments of our athletes. Among our student-athlete population, we have Rhodes Scholarship finalists, researchers for Sterling Professors, the presidents of volunteer organizations, award-winning artists and the leaders of religious groups. Chun should consider spotlighting the accomplishments of one or two athletes a week. In a similar vein, Chun should think about organizing fundraisers and coordinated volunteer activities for our athletes. I believe there is no other time our athletes are more respected than during the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive. Days like these should become more frequent.
Chun might also consider sending money generated from ticket, food and merchandise sales to charity. If a game were for a cause, people would show up. We should also seek to incentivize members of the New Haven community to come to our games — via discounts or free admission to high school students. We could even give out a Yale hat or T-shirt to those that join the stands. Part of the reason our hockey and lacrosse games are crowded is that non-Yale individuals come to those events.
Just as the athletic director should be invested in other activities, our professors should be invested in sports. When University President Peter Salovey conducts the Yale Precision Marching Band, the stadium goes wild. If history professor Paul Kennedy tells the 300 out of 1,000 students who actually attend lectures that he is going to the game and encourages them to join, we might get a few more fans.
At this point, the ideas begin to bleed into the second category: growing enthusiasm for the games. What people should first understand is that enthusiasm for games is a positive feedback loop; the more people who attend games, the more fun they become, the more people want to attend and the more raucous the stands are. Building support not only benefits athletes, but also benefits current fans. So how can we build enthusiasm?
First, advertise. Promote. Communicate. There needs to be a weekly email laying out a schedule for all the games over the next seven days — or highlighting a few different ones each week. Chun should also get other student groups involved. Sections in the stands should be quartered off for other a capella groups and the like. They should perform at halftime, which will incentivize them to invite their friends to the game.
Additionally, games should sometimes be themed. My fraternity has come as pirates, “Star Wars” and “Frozen” characters…and pirates again, like three other times. When the YPMB plays the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme song, we are liable to explode. When we come in theme, we bring our greatest numbers. Much would be the same if everyone came in costume.
What is the single greatest means of incentivizing college students? Drink tickets. Chun should consider orchestrating a deal with Mory’s or Box 63, wherein we advertise that a local bar will host our athletes and students for an official postgame. Those who played and those who attended should receive drink tickets. Our students and athletes will share memories and laughs. This is the way Mory’s used to work: After every football game, the whole student body would converge on our storied club. Oh, and you get a free drink. As a wise poet once said, “if you pour it, Yalies will come” … or something along those lines. Think I am exaggerating? The Senior Class Council hosted an event at the creatively named local bar, “BAR.” 500 people showed up.
The ideas are limitless. We just need Chun to commit to the concept.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org .