At a college that prides itself on admitting the best and brightest, the presence of athletes with academic records that are below the College average is frequently a point of contention. Some see it as unfair that the College chooses to admit students who are talented runners, rowers, or hockey players but who have weaker academic records than many rejected applicants.
But though Harvard will always be first and foremost an academic institution, it also prides itself on giving its undergraduates more than just access to excellent professors and engaging classes. Having a thriving athletic program is an important part of the undergraduate experience, both for the athletes and for those who support them.
Harvard’s athletic department has made an effort to both field competitive teams and to create a large and supportive fan base. The University’s efforts have paid off in demonstrating Harvard’s widespread athletic excellence—in the last four years, Harvard has won one national team championship, four individual national titles, and 19 Ivy titles across 15 different sports.
More importantly, on a campus that is increasingly socially fragmented, sports are the one thing that brings us all together. The stadium staff doesn’t care if you made it through the punch process or if you’ve spent every Saturday night studying—sports games are one of the few social events where a Harvard ID is really all you need to belong.
In the last four years, night games have become an important part of the social calendar. Football’s annual game under the lights, along with marquee matchups with nationally-ranked opponents in men’s soccer and lacrosse, bring thousands of students across the river in support of their peers. These games have been just as beneficial for the teams playing in them as for the students who watch them—Harvard squads are 5-1 in such contests across football, men’s soccer, and men’s lacrosse. A habit of athletic excellence creates a positive feedback loop, causing even more fans to support Harvard’s teams and further adding to the feeling of solidarity that athletics events create.
Remarkably, the Department of Athletics has been yielding such success with a budget that ranked seventh out of the eight Ivy League schools in size last academic year. Harvard fields more varsity teams than any school in the country, and last year it managed to support them all with a budget of $18 million—just half of what Yale spent over the same time frame. Even with this limited budget, Harvard has still managed to hire and retain high-caliber coaches such as Tommy Amaker, who took just four years to turn a perennially struggling men’s basketball program into a first-time Ivy League championship team. For Amaker and similarly high-caliber coaches like football’s Tim Murphy and women’s hockey’s Katey Stone, both of whom have more than 15 years of service at Harvard, there is something special about finding athletic success at a school that is so academically driven.
Their selling point is that at Harvard, you can get pretty close to having it all. An athlete here gets the chance to learn both from challenging academic classes and from the rigors of Division I athletics. It takes a special prospective student to recognize this—and to possibly forego a full scholarship at another school to come and play a sport at a school that will always ask him or her to be a student first.
We all came to Harvard with different talents, but once we get here, we’re held to the exact same standards. Whether you’re an athlete, a superfan, or have never made it across the river, your college experience has been impacted in one way or another by students who may never have thought that Harvard was a possibility without the recruitment and support of the athletic department. Academics may always come first at a university like this, but we ought to appreciate the unique contributions that athletes make to the Harvard community.
Kate Leist ’11, a former Crimson sports chair, is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Adams House.