The Varsity Blues admissions scandal last spring thrust Yale athletics into the national limelight. An investigation by the FBI revealed that Rudy Meredith, head women’s soccer coach for over two decades with an endowed coachship in his own name, had taken bribes to fraudulently list two girls as recruits when neither played soccer. Yale accepted one student, and the University has since rescinded her admission.
This event ignited fierce conversation on campus and beyond about the role of athletic recruiting and its interplay with issues of class and privilege. More broadly, it reminded campus of the inherent politics of athletics: that politics is fundamentally one of community.
University President Salovey said it best when he remarked that “when Yale does well athletically, an entire community basks in the reflected glory of that performance and it raises our community’s sense of ourselves and our self-esteem by reinforcing that shared connection that we have with one another. We are all part of Yale.”
In the past year as Sports Editor, I witnessed several moments when Yale Athletics cohered a fractured Yale student body. I saw that unity when volleyball ascended to the Ivy League Championship and then to the NCAA tournament in the fall, when men’s basketball did the same in the winter and with a late flurry nearly downed LSU in March Madness and when men’s lacrosse stormed all the way to the NCAA championship game in the spring.
The community that athletics brings starts with the team. The Varsity Blues scandal stung so much, not only because of the broader issue of what fair admissions practices are, but also because it corrupted the basis of athletics’ power as a vehicle for community values.
Those community values as written in Yale’s mission statement are “improving the world,” “educating future leaders” and doing all this through “the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent and diverse community.” Director of Athletics Vicky Chun has begun to realize these ideals during her first two years at the helm of Yale Athletics.
She is the first woman and person of color to hold the position and has installed several other women into top positions in the administration. To elevate women, she has moved women’s sports first on the athletics website — something she also did at her previous position at Colgate College. Both of these points hold particular resonance as Yale celebrates 50 years of women at the university.
Moving on from values, let’s now focus on how sports can carry a political message.
Last year, Yale men’s basketball opened their season in the Pac-12 China game against Cal, co-sponsored by Alibaba and the Federation of University Sports of China. The team took classes on Chinese language and culture, and co-founder of Alibaba Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90 organized several activities for the squad.
Over the weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey wrote “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” in a tweet that has since been deleted. The Rockets are the most popular team in China, and the negative response has been fierce with Chinese authorities severing connections with the NBA until the league repudiates Morey’s statement. Tsai, now the majority owner of the Brooklyn Nets, also weighed in with an open letter to NBA fans that said, “supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for citizens of China.”
While I won’t delve into the particular politics of this situation, we should consider the contrafactual of what could have happened to the China game if these events had occurred contemporaneously. Whether Yale played this game or not would have been seen as a tacit statement on whether Yale athletics, and by proxy, Yale supported Tsai’s views or not. What this example shows is that the character of sport is necessarily political. Questions of community are ever-present. No team, let alone Yale’s 35 Division I varsity athletic teams, can extricate themselves from shaping and projecting the communities and values they both inhabit and represent.
On a campus where students sometimes have an apathy towards athletics, recognizing the integral role they play in defining our community and what we stand for is of paramount importance. In order to represent the full gamut of the Yale experience, the entire student body has to be invested in athletics.
Caleb Rhodes | firstname.lastname@example.org