A Sporting ChanceLeave a Comment
On the evening of March 14 at the University of Pennsylvania’s historic Palestra arena, the Harvard and Yale men’s basketball teams were tied at 51 in a game that would send the winner to the NCAA tournament. Then, with seven seconds left, Harvard forward Steve Mondou-Missi hit a 15-foot jumper left to pull ahead of Yale by two points.
Yale got the ball back in time for Javier Duren ’15 to make one final drive to the net, but he missed a layup as time expired, and Yale failed to advance to tournament play, just as they had for the past 52 years.
Ansh Bhagat ’18, who doesn’t play a varsity sport, caught up on the highlights after the game.
“I think I just forgot about it, to be honest,” he said. “I might have been asleep.”
Many Yale students might have had a similar experience: of 155 students who responded to a News survey, 70 percent knew the game’s significance, but only 43 percent reported that they watched it. But Bhagat and others’ relative ambivalence would have seemed out of place on campus 50 years ago.
History professor Jay Gitlin ’71, who teaches the course “Yale and America,” recalls the sense of dejection that gripped campus in the days following Yale’s infamous 29–29 “loss” to Harvard in 1968. In the last 42 seconds of the game, Harvard scored 16 points, tying the game against a heavily favored Yale squad.
“We were in a foul mood,” he remembers. “These things affected the mood of the campus. When it was a Yale victory, everybody was happy.”
But Gitlin also remembers that the Yale team won a lot more than they do now.
UConn, for example, posed no problem. “We assumed that we’d win more than we’d lose, and the teams that we thought we might lose to were more often than not, Dartmouth or Harvard.”
But even with the football team going 8–2 this season, attendance at their games paled in comparison to the sold-out games of Gitlin’s day. This part of Yale’s culture, it seems, has been lost to history.
Some, though, are not content to let sports slip from the campus consciousness. Ralph Molina ’16 is the president of the Whaling Crew, an organization dedicated to supporting Yale’s sports teams.
“I think the Whaling Crew’s job isn’t done until every single sporting game is sold out,” he says. “We’ll probably never get there, but that’s the goal.”
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In 1914, construction crews finished work on the largest amphitheater built since the Roman Coliseum: the Yale Bowl.
Costing the University $17.7 million, the imposing concrete stadium reflected the athletic dominance of a football team representing a school that had helped invent the sport. But the administration’s efforts came too late: By the time the Bowl was completed, the Bulldogs had already won 26 out of their 27 total national championships.
The 80,000-seat behemoth would never again see the kind of national spotlight it once enjoyed. Since then, attendance has fallen, and renovations to the stadium have reduced its capacity to just over 60,000
Still, attendance didn’t suddenly fall off once Yale stopped winning national titles. According to Joel Alderman ’51, “It was a gradual process.” Alderman, a retired lawyer who now writes about Yale athletics for SportzEdge.com, said Yale was still a top team in his day, and the noticeable decline in attendance came in the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Prior to that, though, sports — and football in particular — remained an important part of campus life. Gitlin emphasized the greater importance that football had in the University’s social culture when he was a student.
“Football was part of the social calendar,” he said. “You went to football games. We dated a lot, and dating often included going to the football game and then to a dance.”
Since then, though, student interest in sports has declined markedly.
Last fall, the Bulldogs celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl with a rare contest against Army. In an extravagant pre-game spectacle, the game ball was delivered by a cadet parachuting out of a helicopter and landing at midfield. That day, the Bulldogs managed an unlikely victory over a highly competitive team.
But the Bulldogs’ rousing win came in front of tens of thousands of empty seats. Pat O’Neill, associate director of marketing for Yale athletics, estimates that there were around 1,000 fans in attendance, a figure dwarfed by the crowds of 50 and 60 thousand that Yale games drew during the mid-20th century.
And the Army game offers only one example: 58 percent of survey respondents said they had been to three or fewer sporting events this year.
Alderman thinks this dip in attendance is a symptom of something deeper.
“Sports themselves don’t carry as much meaning to the students,” he said.
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Yale students’ attitudes towards sports have been shaped by social and institutional factors. But according to athletes and administrators alike, the most important determinant in a team’s support remains its win-loss record.
“In my experience being here at Yale, kids are pretty educated when it comes to our sports teams,” O’Neill said. “You can’t fool Yale students. Our teams need to win and they’ll come out.”
But since their heyday early last century, Ivy League sports in general have ceded ground to other, larger institutions.
In 1923, Harvard, Princeton and Yale signed the Three Presidents’ Agreement, affirming that all athletes would be admitted as students and would have to conform to the same academic standards expected of others. This restriction opened the door for schools like Michigan and Ohio State to surpass Yale in athletics by using scholarships to recruit top talent. In 1945, the other Ivies agreed not to offer athletic scholarships either, clearing the way for bigger schools with millions of dollars to spend on their athletic programs.
An Ivy League policy prohibiting postseason play further isolated the league’s teams, preventing them from participating in much-publicized bowl games.
“A lot of the time academia and national [athletics] don’t really work well together,” said Molina.
But some say that certain aspects of Yale itself keep athletics from flourishing on campus. Many remarked on the distance from campus to athletic facilities like the Yale Bowl, Yale Field and Coxe Cage.
Although Caroline Lynch ’17, a member of the women’s tennis team and secretary of the Yale Student-Athlete College Council, said sporting events at Yale are generally well attended. She added that those taking place at the Smilow Field House, as opposed to in Ingalls Rink or Payne Whitney Gymnasium, tend to attract fewer viewers because of the distance from campus.
Ree Ree Li ’16, also on the women’s tennis team, reiterated that sentiment.
“We always have good showings for sports that are in the gym because it’s so close,” Li said. “The biggest challenge is getting people to come out for the games that are at the fields.”
Jackson Stallings ’17, a member of the football team and the president of YSACC, said he would like to see an investment in the Yale Bowl’s infrastructure. He thinks that making seating more comfortable or adding or a jumbotron, like Cornell or Harvard have, would encourage more students to attend football games.
O’Neill said budget constraints left no room for investment in the Bowl’s infrastructure right now. But Li said there are non-financial measures that Yale can take to show more support for its athletes. She mentioned a policy in place at Princeton that ensures classes never take place while sports teams practice, meaning athletes could take whatever classes they want. Yale’s athletes, who must tailor their schedules to avoid conflicts, do not enjoy this luxury.
Li said she didn’t receive full credit for a course last fall semester because she had to miss class to travel to California with her team.
Those institutional features might also bleed over into Yale’s campus culture itself: Molina said one source of student disinterest might be administrative attitudes toward sports. Since Yale can’t give athletic scholarships, he said, many feel that sports aren’t important.
But not everyone thinks that Yale’s campus culture doesn’t support sports.Lynch, for one, said the idea that Yalies don’t support their sports teams isn’t true. Some will know more about sports than others, she added, but that can be said of any aspect of Yale’s campus life.
If people are divided as to how Yale students feel about sports, everyone agrees that a supportive campus is vital to thriving athletic programs. And key to that support is a sense of connection between athletes and non-athletes.
“If we can create a culture where the students as well as student-athletes are all close, people will want to go out to support each other,” Li said. “I go to plays and dance shows because I have friends that are in them. If more people have friends who are athletes, they’d be more willing to go out to games.”
But the distance that some Yalies feel between themselves and those representing them on the field became clear in a video released by the Harvard comedy group “On Harvard Time” before the Game last fall.
In the video, disguised Harvard students interviewed Yalies about the state of Yale’s football program and asked them to sign a petition to defund it.
Li and Molina said it disappointed them to see how easily the actors were able to convince Yale students to publicly endorse cutting funding for the football team.
“We have funding issues already within athletics, and to see people wanting to take money from a program that hundreds of students are a part of, I was surprised by that,” Li said.
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If such a petition ever passed, at least two names would certainly not be on it.
In their first weeks as freshmen, Andrew Sobotka ’15 and Hal Libby ’15 noticed a lack of support for Yale’s sports teams. They decided to take matters into their own hands.
“The first football game had decent attendance but the second one was absolutely abysmal,” Sobtoka said. “Hal and I were shocked that on this beautiful fall day, nobody was out at the Bowl cheering on the ‘Dogs.”
In response, the pair founded the Whaling Crew, the organization of which Molina is now president. Starting out as a small group of friends, it now has over 1,300 likes on its Facebook page.
This year alone, the Whaling Crew has organized student tailgates, ordered pizza for fans in the student sections at home games and arranged transportation so interested students can travel to away games.
“Before the Whaling Crew existed, there was no group to get students to come out to athletics,” Molina said. “It was just the athletics office, or through the grapevine. It’s different when you’re hearing about it from students than when you’re hearing about it from the administration.
O’Neill said the Whaling Crew’s efforts have had a tangible effect on sports attendance, enticing more students to come out to games, and the group now receives funding from the athletics office. “We value them immensely,” O’Neill says.
The Whaling crew also appeared in August at a new event called Yale UP!, which Molina says added to their legitimacy and increased student interest in joining.
Yale UP!, inaugurated this year during Camp Yale, consisted of presentations made by members of the athletics department to the incoming freshman class. Students were taught Yale’s historic cheers, and the event featured a relay race between residential colleges, among other competitions. Yale UP!, a conscious administrative effort to encourage support for Yale’s sports teams, was mandatory.
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Despite the lackluster competitive spirit of the past few decades and the eight-year winless streak in the Game, Yale sports fans have reason to hold out hope.
The Bulldogs have seen major successes in recent years that are leading to attention on a national scale: the men’s hockey team took home the NCAA title in 2013, Yale football star Tyler Varga ’15 is competing for NFL consideration and the men’s basketball team missed March Madness by a hair. And survey data suggests that campus support is on the rise: more than a third of respondents said they were more interested in Yale sports this year than last.
“Sports are on the up at Yale,” said Molina. “My attitude about athletic attendance on campus is not necessarily proud, but it’s optimistic.”