Earlier this month, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean Michael Smith announced that Athletic Director Robert Scalise would assume additional duties
as Interim Executive Dean of the FAS.
Scalise will take over at the post, which oversees non-academic areas such as finance and facilities, beginning in March.
Thankfully, Smith still has time to reconsider.
As Harvard has gone through numerous dean searches over the past few years, a sentiment has been echoed almost universally among students: they want deans who care about students, who are open and receptive, and who will do a thorough job of communicating with students.
If the actions of the Athletic Department are any indication of its leader, Scalise lacks many of these qualities.
The Athletic Department’s callous, secretive nature was first revealed to me during the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) debacle
in the fall of 2006. Not only did the Athletic Department leave the majority of the student body in the dark, but it even failed to address the concerns of its own athletes. Weeks after the closing of the MAC had been widely publicized, varsity athletes who use the MAC facilities for their practices and games still found themselves left out of the loop.
“It’s disrespectful,” said former men’s volleyball co-captain Dave Fitz ’07 at the time. “I understand the renovations have to be done, but it would be nice if they had informed us rather than us having to open up The Crimson and read it in there.”
The Athletic Department struck again this year with its push to switch many junior varsity teams to club status.
Much like with the MAC, the decision wasn’t necessarily malicious in its intent. The Athletic Department pointed to a number of factors, including the lack of commitment among JV athletes, the shrinking number of JV programs across the country, and the additional flexibility club teams have because they are not subject to NCAA regulations.
Still, let’s take a moment to see things without those rose-colored glasses.
Who is really to blame for the lack of commitment by JV athletes? Sure, some students may not be dedicated and may take their responsibilities lightly. But it’s not as if the Athletic Department is establishing any sort of organized infrastructure that is supportive of those who want to play JV sports.
Junior Dave Kopelman, one of the co-founders of the newly-created club soccer team, explains that he encountered many frustrations in his dealings with the Athletic Department.
“The Athletic Department did a horrible job of communicating to the players,” he says. “I know last year, everyone who returned to the team got an e-mail about tryouts. That never happened this fall. They claimed that they were at the activities fairs, but I didn’t see anything like that at all.
“The day of the first tryout, there weren’t even enough people eligible to try out because they hadn’t received the appropriate information. So they had to cancel and bring us back next week. Stuff like that really started the season off in a horrible way.”
The problem of communication produces a vicious circle. When the Athletic Department fails to provide an appropriate structure for JV teams, it is quite natural that JV athletes should find themselves less enthusiastic about showing up to practices and games.
Moreover, as JV field hockey player sophomore Courtney Blair says, there is little information available to athletes who are interested in JV athletics, with most recruiting having to be accomplished by word of mouth.
“When I got here, I didn’t know there was a JV field hockey team—and I did research,” Blair says. “It’s not on the club teams website, because it’s not a club sport, and it’s not anywhere [on gocrimson.com, the Athletic Department’s website].”
Additionally, there has been little respect shown for the significance of JV programs. Kopelman recalls that this past season, as many as 10 varsity players would show up to JV games, severely limiting playing time for genuine JV athletes and leading most of them to quit.
“By the last game of the season, there were less than five actual JV guys at the game, because the JV guys were that discouraged,” Kopelman says. “People were choosing [intramural] sports over JV sports, which is really frustrating.”
All of this, of course, does not even begin to address the challenges of dealing with a club team. As players from the rugby and ultimate frisbee teams will aver, club teams do not have much respect at Harvard. They receive very little funding from the athletic department—a staff editorial
in The Crimson last year placed the figure at an average of $400 per team per year—and they are not allowed to use the varsity facilities, and they have to take care of all of their own scheduling and equipment.
“You can’t even pay a coach for a week for $400, let alone afford to go to a national tournament,” says Undergraduate Council Vice President junior Randall Sarafa, who spent significant time researching the trials and tribulations of club teams at Harvard. “The UC actually does fund club sports better than anybody on campus, providing up to $2000 a semester. But if the JV program gets rolled into the club sports program, we can’t afford that as a council.”
The Athletic Department’s answer, of course, is that if teams like rugby and ultimate frisbee can get by, then so can transitioning club teams. The new teams will be able to appeal to the same sorts of fundraising and recruiting, right?
“The huge difference is that there is no varsity frisbee or varsity rugby team, so they get all the really intense people on that team and all the really intense alumni,” Blair says. “We get the backwash of burned-out field hockey players who just want to play around, so that is not a sustainable model for us.”
As Blair points out, the presence of a varsity team will limit the attention a sibling club team will get, increasing concerns about funding and recruiting. Former JV men’s basketball team captain senior AJ Tennant says he recalls playing club frisbee his freshman year and having to shell out $500 to go to a tournament in San Diego.
Moreover, the shift to club means a simultaneous shifting of the administrative burden to students. No longer will the Athletic Department schedule games, practices, or transportation for the teams. Instead, this will all have to be done by the students themselves. And while club team leaders seem to have accepted this inevitable responsibility, some JV players are reluctant to transition their teams to club teams simply because of that reason.
“I think it would be very difficult for the JV basketball team to do,” Tennant says of a potential switch to club status. “You might be able to have more flexibility, you may have more games, but that’s a whole lot more resources you have to put into the program from the student level.”
“I don’t have the time,” Blair says. “Trying to organize games, reserve the field, get all the equipment together—and then to find underclassmen who will be willing to take on that mantle… it’s nearly impossible.”
The Athletic Department has taken some steps to ease the transition. Kopelman says that the club soccer team has received old varsity jerseys and might get some soccer balls, as well. Moreover, the Athletic Department promised to provide some money to the team at the end of the fall.
That check, of course, has still not arrived.
Indeed, it’s the lack of communication that we first saw with the MAC debacle that continues to be the biggest indicator that the Athletic Department just doesn’t really give a shit.
“Our contact, Jake Olkkola, is really awful at getting back to us,” Kopelman says. “How hard can it be to return a message, or return an e-mail? Right now, we have teams that want to play us, but we don’t know what to tell them—we don’t even know if we’ll have the field.”
Future Dean Scalise sure runs a tight ship at the Athletic Department. His personnel know how to save money: eliminate JV programs. They know how to save time: don’t return students’ phone calls or emails.
When it comes to this deanship, even “interim” may be too long a timespan.
—Staff writer Karan Lodha can be reached at email@example.com.