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As Yogi would say, it’s deja-vu all over again. For the second successive year the Harvard and Penn football teams are both 5-0 and are preparing to battle tomorrow for the Ivy League crown and the chance of an unbeaten Ivy season. As the Crimson’s marquee team awaits its biggest sporting challenge of the year (and one to be featured on ESPN’s GameDay, no less), it is a fitting time to think about the central role athletics should play at Harvard and why those who denigrate athletes are sorely misguided.
It is unfortunate but undeniable that the perception exists amongst vast swathes of the Harvard community that varsity athletes are largely dunces who are only allowed to associate with their hallowed intellectual classmates by the grace of God and the recruiting strategies of Satan. I am surely no varsity athlete, but I understand their frustration when faced with myriad attacks from these ranks of sniveling intellectual snobs, still bitter about being chosen last in middle school gym class and reveling in their chance for revenge. Player-haters take note: athletics should have every bit as important a role to play in undergraduate life at Harvard as academics.
At first that sounds nonsensical. Harvard is a world center of scholarship and its students should surely be the best and the brightest. Which is indeed true, if one acknowledges that “the best” students and “the brightest” ones are not the same, and are often far from similar. With their ability to good-humoredly juggle their multitude of commitments, a great number of athletes fall into the former category; with their grim resolve to crack their books as their overwhelming top priority, many Harvard students fit the latter classification. A top-notch academic record does not confer merit in its own right: it must be complimented by a range of other attributes, including (but not limited to) honor, flexibility and determination. And, while the Harvard admissions pamphlet might proclaim that these skills can be perfected in the lab or in section, as things stand all three virtues are far easier to obtain on the basketball court than in the lecture hall.
Harvard, it is repeated ad nauseam, is filled with the leaders of tomorrow. Yet it is rarely discussed that one can learn far more about leadership from participating in serious team sports than from ferreting around in the stacks of Widener Library. In support of the crucial role athletics has to play in undergraduate life, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 cited the example of an alumnus he had just met at an event in New York. “[He was a] varsity soccer player, and now heads a division of 600 people in a major corporation; he believes the leadership and teamwork skills he developed in athletic competition was as important to his success as his academic education,” wrote Lewis in an e-mail. “There are plenty of others who would say the same thing.”
It is unrealistic, however, to expect all students to want to get involved in sports while they are at college. Even if the time crunch here were not so extreme, there simply are some people for whom sports just do not appeal. But it is not outlandish to demand respect and admiration for the achievements and commitment of athletes, and for an acknowledgement that, say, playing on the women’s hockey team is every bit as worthy a way to spend one’s time at Harvard as singing in an a cappella group or writing for a publication. Committed participation in any extra-curricular activity at Harvard will reduce the amount of time one can devote to academic studies, but it is only athletes who are required by the Ivy Council of Presidents to take an enforced seven week break. The move is sorely representative of a culture of intellectual snobbery that seeks to penalize athletes for supposedly excessive involvement in non-academic pursuits.
Leaving aside prejudice based on mean SAT scores as a measure of intellectual prowess—mean-ingless SAT scores would be more like it—varsity athletes make superb role models for the Harvard student body. Their ability to balance countless time-consuming and physically exhausting practices with the same amount of classwork that everyone else has is stunning. Look around the dining hall and you will see athletes relaxing together; go out on the weekend and you will see athletes partying after a long hard week. In short, Harvard’s athletes have perspective.
“The best” have that perspective. “The best” understand what it takes to work productively in a team. “The best” are cheerful and committed individuals with a range of interests and pursuits. “The brightest” are, well, very bright. That is it. Before jumping on the anti-athlete bandwagon, it is worth considering what values we hold. At Harvard today it seems that “academics uber alles” holds sway. Which is shameful as there are so many skills in life of at least commensurate importance to the ability to glean every useful piece of information from a textbook.
The administration has pointed to Allston as the center of Harvard’s glittering future. Yet it is to Allston’s past and present as the home of Harvard athletics that we should look for inspiration. Harvard will always have “the brightest;” it is time to focus on “the best.” And whatever the result in Philadelphia tomorrow, our athletes have already shown themselves to fall into the latter category.
Anthony S. A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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