So, You Wanna Be a Letterman?


What does it take to earn varsity status at Harvard? Politics, pompoms or an Ivy League championship? Take the cheerleaders, for example, a group that traditionally toiled at basketball games with no recognition and now earns "varsity" sweaters--the big crimson H outlined in white against a black background--and will ride free to New Haven this weekend. Or look at the rugby team that's been kicking around for 105 years and just last spring had to pay its own way to England for tournament games. Despite the difference in treatment, both teams have one thing in common--they're non-varsity teams.

Some teams assumed that because the cheerleaders got sweaters, they also got varsity status, says Andronike E. Janus, assistant athletic director. "There was no intent to imply that the team has varsity status," she adds.

Before petitioning for varsity status, any group of students must organize a sport at the club level, then try to build support.

Most teams are not considered for varsity status until they have spent two or three years at the club level, although there is no official requirement.

Then there's the question of 'hey, where do we play?'. Of course it matters if the team will play in a field or in a country pasture--the old team morale. But if the team can not find anywhere else besides a pasture to compete against a visiting team, then all the games would have to be played away--an expense the Department of Athletics refuses to bear. "If we had to send a team away all the time, it could get very expensive," Janus says. The restriction on playing area keeps club sports like gymnastics from joining the varsity ranks.

If the team has a place to play, the next question concerns a coaching staff. Will anyone coach the sport for free? Working with a women's volleyball or softball team--teaching both the fundamentals and the strategy--takes an enormous amount of time. But these sports have no paid coaches. "We have to find our own," says one softball team member.

And of course there's the interest factor. No self-respecting sports department would throw its weight behind a team that had only ten spectators at the home game. "We want to make sure that we're not underwriting a fad," says Janus. Several people raised eyebrows when the women's hockey team gained varsity status a short while ago--"they thought it was a passing fancy," Janus recalled. So it's unlikely that the ultimate frisbee squad will petition anytime soon for a place in the upper echelon.

Some teams don't feel it's worth the hassle to become a varsity sport. The sports department reaches its bureaucratic claws into coach selection, the team plays a prescribed schedule and everything goes under Harvard regulation. On the other hand, there are a few benefits--a paid coach, an expense free trip to a game or meet and the prestigious Harvard 'H.'

The petition process begins on a rotating basis, with teams usually considered from December to March--before budget-making time. But this politicization of sports is nothing new. After all, politics is often called a zero-sum game.