The wider world will remember the 2018–19 season in Yale athletics with one word: scandal. In March, of course, news broke that the women’s soccer coach of 24 years, Rudy Meredith, solicited two bribes from parents in exchange for spots on his team. Meredith spent his last season as a coach secretly cooperating with the FBI.
I, on the other hand, will associate the past year in Yale sports with the morning of Oct. 25, when I stood with the bulk of the student body in the winding catacombs of Payne Whitney Gym waiting for a ticket to the Harvard–Yale game. This was an unpleasant experience. Because the game was played at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, tickets were limited and seats were assigned. The night before, my suitemates and I engaged in a long dispute about how early we should arrive, and we were all wrong. We trudged to Payne Whitney an hour before the doors opened, at 8 a.m., greeted by a line of shivering, bleary-eyed Yalies stretching up Dixwell Avenue and snaking down Lake Place.
Eventually, we proceeded to crawl through hallways I never knew existed in the recesses of the Cathedral of Sweat. The chlorine of the pool added to the festive aroma. When we finally made it to the front, cash-payers and card-payers were separated from each other and given tickets in different areas. After hours of waiting in line to watch the Game together, fending off line-cutters, claustrophobia and exhaustion, a few friends’ proclivities for paying with plastic ruined the whole endeavor. I contend that more students were grumpy on that October morning than any other this year. We were a liberal elite version of Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses”: tired, hungry and $25 poorer.
In the end, Fenway Park’s seating enforcement was minimal — we could all sit together — and the Game was as enjoyable as a 45–27 loss could be. I recall my gripes only because I think they embody the dualities of Yale athletics’ tumultuous year. The student body reaffirmed its commitment to one of the only truly unifying undergraduate experiences but had to endure a crucible of inefficient ticket sales. The Game was at one of the most historic baseball fields in the country, at the expense of a centralized tailgate and ample seating. Yale sports delivered some great moments this year but were overshadowed by Meredith’s corruption and greed.
The men’s basketball team is a case in point. Even though Yale hosted the Ivy League Tournament, it never presented students with an option for discounted tickets or made any effort to cultivate a full and rambunctious student section. In fact, a much smaller cohort of Harvard and Princeton fans drowned out the Bulldog crowd for much of the weekend; scheduling the event in the middle of spring break did not help. Perhaps the Ivy League is to blame rather than Yale, but either way, the powers that be chose jacked-up ticket prices over student experience.
Similarly, when the Bulldogs took on LSU in Jacksonville in the NCAA Tournament, Yale didn’t even send the Yale Precision Marching Band to perform at the game. Instead, it hired a college in northern Florida to don navy Yale shirts and quickly learn the fight song.
And while it might be too much to expect Yale to fly students to Jacksonville over spring break for the game, I bet some well-heeled alumni would be willing to do just that. On top of it all, the department removed the growling bulldog from Yale’s main logo in favor of a sleeker but more corporate “Y.”
All of these decisions make perfect business sense: A few grumbling students are well worth the publicity of playing at Fenway Park and on ESPNU, and if anyone in the band was upset, they’d be quiet about it by the Sweet Sixteen. At every turn, the athletic department always seemed to alienate students as it chased after profit. Only one coach took a bribe, but the entire department is organized around making money.
Perhaps this is unsurprising, but it undermines the great appeal of Ivy League athletics. Here, “student-athlete” is more than corporate cant; athletes play for four years, get their degrees and are an active part of academic life on campus. The athletic complex resembles a gothic cathedral, not the Nike headquarters. But Yale’s commitment to cultivating a student-centric atmosphere only goes so far.
If Yale is serious about supporting its student-athletes, it can prioritize getting the rest of the students out to games to support them and building a culture of excitement that may well cut into its bottom line. Us students, of course, have to play a part as well. Next year, let’s return that Bulldog snarl back to its rightful place on the logo and bring the bite back to our student section.
Steven Rome | firstname.lastname@example.org