So, this marks the end of one girl’s scholastic sporting career. What began vivaciously with a seven-goal scoring spree on a soccer field in first grade has turned into the most enduring activity of my school years and, I dare say, my life thus far.
Almost without pause for the past 17 years, being in school has meant being part of some athletic team. Time in classrooms has been complemented by time in locker rooms. This will entirely disappear upon graduation. Today, I leave school, perhaps to return in the future, but never again as a student-athlete.
Of course, graduation does not mean the end of sport any more than it means the end of learning.
I will, of course, continue to play sports and, on occasion, even be athletic. But the end of college marks a significant moment in an athlete’s career. Along nearly all of my fellow graduating athletes (save Olympians), I will return to sport as merely an individual. Never again will I play in the name of a school, be it Harvard University, Deerfield Academy or Wandell Elementary School. For the amateur athlete, one of the greatest motivations is to play for something bigger than one’s self, to toil for something that dwarfs a single individual’s importance. My opportunity to do this in the athletic sphere largely ends today.
It is trite and incomplete to deem athletic competition complementary to education. I have learned two important life skills from athletics.
First, athletics have toughened me up. From the overt physicality of sport, one eventually adopts the ability to suck it up and deal. Sports are often unpleasant. From the despised suicide sprints at the end of an exhausting basketball practice to the disagreeable predicament of playing 18 holes in a downpour, sports have forced me to perform physical tasks that I so completely did not want to do.
Second, I have learned a great deal about teamwork, leadership and—indirectly—human solidarity. In the classroom, I have always thought in terms of the individual, of myself. Conversely, within sport, the focus is almost entirely on the team. Bonded together in the pursuit of a single goal—no matter how insignificant—a fluidly functioning team is perhaps the ideal of human solidarity.
The Harvard community has yet to succeed in comfortably juxtaposing athletics and academics. There is a latent tendency—among teaching staffs, fellow classmates and even athletes themselves—to place an individual in either one category or the other but not to allow them to straddle the two. The message is you are either an athlete (“dumb jock”) or a (committed) student, but never both. Early on, perhaps by my second semester, I had come to the realization that to be taken seriously as a student—in essence, to avoid the “dumb jock” label—meant I would have to hide my athletic involvement.
Not much more than a quarter-century ago, Harvard was a place where muscular academics flourished. I fear, after nearly four years of observation, that today we are forced to chose between academics and athletics. Perhaps this demise is due to the recent intensification (or professionalization) of Ivy League sports. Potential Ivy athletes now face tougher athletic requirements to gain admission and upon arrival must endure longer, harder practices than in decades past. No doubt we field better teams today. But perhaps the cost is a more-specialized, less-involved athlete.
It is by no means a one-sided tale. We, the athletes, are equally to blame for the “dumb jock” phenomenon. I have witnessed more than a handful of athletes all too ready to adopt the persona. Sadly, we are an introverted community and do not commit ourselves completely to dispelling the stereotype. The “dumb jock” persona is easy to adopt—it gives the illusion of identity and those outside the athletic community will grant it to you willingly. But in the end the “dumb jock” graduates miss much of the rich world of opportunity Harvard offers. And so, that stereotype has a nasty way of making itself into a truth: The jock is indeed dumb.
In many ways, I have spent too much time running away from the “dumb jock” label. At the very least, I gravitated to activities that seemed to build my persona outside the stereotype. In this way, I spent nearly four years paralyzed by the stereotype. Partially out of fears of falling into the athlete trap, I signed on to a concentration that, due to the rigor of its tutorial program, was almost devoid of athletes. Even writing for The Crimson seemed the “unathletic” thing to do. If I had to do it over again, I might attempt to be more active in fighting the stereotype instead of running from it.
Perhaps one of the hardest realities for athletes to accept is their sporting mortality. We all, at some point, fall from the center of attention. We move from the goal lines to the sidelines. The player becomes the coach, or at least the supportive (read: over-involved) parent. As A.E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” describes: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away/From fields where glory does not stay/And early though the laurel grows/It withers quicker than the rose.”
Today, as I graduate, I will be thinking of my life as a student and as an athlete. I will know that despite the stereotype, the jock need not be dumb and often leaves college more enlightened, by the virtues and lessons of sport, than his or her fellow classmates. In these lessons, there are delights. But there is also sadness, for, as Housman wrote, the rose of my athletic career has withered. It is time for me to step outside and allow aspiring first-graders to play through.