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I’m a little tired of reading on this page about the greatness of Harvard athletes. Too many identical columns have told us about their dedication, work ethic, ability to walk on water and good looks.
To me, the greatest thing about Harvard athletes is that they frequently suck. And we get to watch.
Varsity athletes here no doubt have some admirable qualities lacking in most students here. But I also find them rather cliquey and, in some cases, removed from most students.
Much of this impression is my own fault. There are almost a thousand varsity athletes on campus—maybe four of them are even acquaintances of mine (varsity athletes tend not to major in computer science). I covered hockey regularly for two years and, thanks to a Memento-like inability to remember faces, still cannot identify more than four or five players on the team.
This is pretty sad. Others on staff tell me that part of the joy of writing sports here is the access you have to the athletes—you end up covering your friends. I missed that. Yet while the lack of any relationship with athletes is not something I’m proud of, it has profoundly impacted the way I look at Ivy League sports and the people who play them.
While I may have enjoyed it more, I don’t think I would have been as good a sportswriter if I actually knew the athletes I wrote about. I’m one of those caustic fans, who—while in their heart they desperately want their teams to win—when watching a game spends as much time telling their favorite players how much they suck as cheering when they succeed. Being detached from the athletes here allowed me to bring that mentality to Harvard sports.
You’re not supposed to cheer in the press box. But muted jeering always seemed to be OK. And without the ability to turn to fellow hockey writer Tim McDonald and say that “so and so is really sucking it down tonight,” sportswriting wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.
Thus, while always taking care not to criticize individual players by name and never to knock their effort, if a team or part of the team played poorly I made sure to write about it.
This coverage hasn’t always been well-received by athletes. I and others have received complaints that we are not supporting teams enough, that athletes are just students, after all, and complaints that ask us how dare we ever criticize people who get up at daybreak every morning and put hours into their sport.
Such complaints—and coverage that bows to them—do Harvard sports a disservice. I might root negatively for personal pleasure, but I tend to write because it illustrates one of the best, and underappreciated, aspects of Harvard sports. On a campus filled with successful people, Harvard athletes are not afraid to fail occasionally.
Let’s face it—Harvard students are pretty good at, well, being students. We’re smart, we have amazing extracurricular talents and we’re used to succeeding. Many students here are not used to failure—some are even afraid of it.
I remember before freshman year receiving numerous letters informing incoming students that they would no longer be the smartest or most gifted or best musician around. Be prepared, the letters said—you might feel mediocre. Despite these warnings, every year some freshmen have a hard time adjusting to “failure.” And thanks to grade inflation, many Harvard students still don’t know the feeling.
But Harvard athletes know failure all the time. Our wide receivers drop easy passes, goalies let slow pucks dribble by and our guards brick crucial free throws. Harvard teams are quite good by Ivy standards, but they still lose. And often it’s not because the opponent was too good. It’s because Harvard athletes, for a moment, tried hard but just failed to perform.
And they did so in front of hundreds if not thousands of people.
Now that’s pressure. There are some extraordinarily gifted people here, but ultimately all the a capella jams and orchestra concerts they put on are little more than glorified talent shows. We know they’re good, but few know when (or if) they make a mistake. And when they do, hundreds of people don’t groan in disappointment, and those rooting for them to fail don’t cheer with glee.
Sports are different. With every virtuoso performance in athletics there is at least once loser—and often it is an athlete from Harvard. And for the caustic sports fans who have missed out and aren’t friends with the athletes—those who thus look at Harvard athletics in the same detached manner as they would pro sports—there’s always the tendency to let them know that they didn’t do so well.
But the ability of athletes to fail and take it isn’t some lesson in suffering. It makes the successes so much sweeter. I’ll never forget the joy that rushed through me after the men’s hockey team beat Cornell in the 2002 ECAC Championship. It was an amazing accomplishment on its own, but it would not have felt nearly so good had the team not played so terribly just a month before.
It was quite possibly the best feeling I’ve had in 14 years of addiction to sports. I felt honored to cover it. For one night, there was cheering in the press box.
And I owe that experience to that rare group of Harvard students not afraid to fail publicly and take the criticism with some toughness where others might take offense. For this reason, even if I’ve never known any of these athletes personally, they’ve more than earned my highest respect.
Oh, I still think they still suck sometimes, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
—Staff writer Elijah M. Alper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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