Student-Athletes Deserve Praise

If you’ve ever been on a tour of Harvard Yard—actually, let’s be real, if you’ve ever been in Harvard Yard—you’re sure to have heard tour guides from the obnoxious (see: “Hahvahd” Tours) to the factually inaccurate (I once overheard a guide at the head of a large group of Chinese tourists claim that the Pig on the Porcellian gate was there because “Harvard reveres the pig for its wisdom”). And they freely bellow the fact that Harvard has the most (41) varsity athletic teams of any institute of higher education in the world.

We on the sports board of the Crimson cover all of them. You, our readers, hopefully read about all of them too. And of course, our roommates, friends and classmates fill out the rosters of each of these teams. But one thing that we writers, students and tourists have to grapple with is how many of us actually care about that magical “41”?

Sure, we all were excited last year when the men’s basketball team won its first Ivy League championship ever, and rightfully so. But the team only represents about two percent of Harvard’s varsity sports.

You, the pre-med taking five classes, do you care that Alexandra Kiefer ’14 won the national championship in fencing last year as a freshman? And you, the future politician who frequents the IOP, does it really matter to you that rower Andrew Campbell ’14 is taking a semester off to train for the 2012 Olympics? What about that Ivy Championship season in softball?

The answers, one can assume, range from ‘No,’ to ‘I care in the same way I care that eight U.S. Presidents attended Harvard.’ In other words, not much beyond a collective pat on the back.

In October’s edition of The Atlantic, Taylor Branch wrote a brilliant piece titled “The Shame of College Sports.” His story outlined, and in many ways underscored, what those of us who pay attention to big time college sports have known for years: that the two hallmarks of the NCAA—amateurism and the student-athlete—are fraudulent.

Two of the most memorable college athletes of the last decade, Reggie Bush and Cam Newton, had their parents receive large, and illegal, sums of cash in return for their talents. One of the defining football teams of the decade, the Miami Hurricanes, had 72 players receive benefits from boosters, ranging from cash and entrance to night clubs, to prostitutes. What’s even more disturbing is that none of this is new. Even the original Olympians of ancient Greece were often paid mercenaries who traded allegiance between city-states in the pursuit of greater wealth.

Last Sunday the Crimson field hockey team won a game against Bryant University, 2-1, to improve their season record to 4-3. After the game, coach Sue Caples did something remarkable. Rather than celebrate and send the team on its way, she had them shake hands with the Bulldogs, and assistant coach Jen Long issued the four-word order that every athlete dreads: “Get on the line.”

Caples’ 25 players calmly approached the midfield line and went through their post-game jog. Afterward some of them went to meet friends, others went back to their dorms to rest and others still made the trek to Lamont to finish a problem set or study for an upcoming midterm. There was no night club bouncer waiting for them, nor an exclusive luxurious dorm—just the normal anonymous lives of a Harvard undergraduate.

Former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853, once famously said of Harvard’s baseball team:

“I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.”

Folksy naivety aside, Eliot was a firm believer in amateurism, the importance of athletics in conjunction with academics, and the significance of sport as a worthy endeavor regardless of the result.

Indeed, as an undergraduate Eliot raced in the famous Harvard-Yale regatta, and was one of many students to sing a commemorative song that included the line:

“The race must come before the prize, the cross before the crown.”

Though I’m sure there is much that Eliot would dislike about today’s Harvard, it is heartening to know that 150 years later, there are still student-athletes staying true to an ideal that far too many have preached, and far too few have lived.

That is why I care.

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

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