Earlier today, the Yale Daily News ran a column by Cole Aronson that argued Yale admissions should completely disregard athletics while admitting students. In the writer’s defense, the article did bring to light what many feel is the ‘elephant in the room’ in regards to the integration of student-athletes with the rest of the Yale community. But the piece—written with a toxically misinformed perception of the Yale student-athlete—merits a response from those who believe that the author was misguided.
America has an unparalleled, beautiful obsession with sport. Sport is part of the American genome; throughout our history, it has straddled political divides and helped us grapple with the most complex issues of our social fabric, such as race and gender. Thus, regardless of an indifference to athletics, every student has the opportunity to learn from the sociocultural impact sports has had on the world around us. The Yale student-athlete population is a reflection of this great narrative of sport, which many of us find as American as apple pie.
Today we continue to love sport because it embodies the democratic values we hold with such high regard—values that couldn’t be taught in a more effective manner. As a baseball player here, I can attest that Yale’s sports programs teach individual athletes to belong to a team. We have learned to work together, transcend our differences, and sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of our teammates. Do not underestimate the power of cliché. Yes, there are group projects required in the ‘purely academic pursuits’ which Aronson rightfully admires. But sports teach teamwork to a degree that is hard to find in the classroom.The trust a quarterback places in his receiver during a big rivalry game is in no way similar to the relationship between two partners in a chemistry lab. To succeed in sports, you must also have a critical understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. This you gain while acting under pressure, for the good of others, and is a degree of self-knowledge hard to find while studying in the library or ensconcing yourself behind the words of an op-ed column.
Being a member of a team necessitates recovery from losses. Ultimately, this requires another quality that sports teach like no other pursuit: humility. As a high schooler accepted to Yale to be a student-athlete, I stepped foot on campus with more self-confidence than I previously ever had. But similar to many other freshmen, I was immediately humbled by the level of talent, dignity, and experience that my older teammates exhibited. The vertical transfer of knowledge taught me a sense of humility, which is a social skill I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Aronson himself might find such lessons enriching; his careless assumption that sports offer little to the Yale student body displays a tremendous lack of humility. This breed of elitism is what inspires such animosity toward Ivy Leaguers from the American public. In his piece, Aronson shows complete disregard for anyone but the “superb doctors, writers, scientists, lawyers, politicians and engineers,” that Yale churns out. What about those Yale graduates who choose less lucrative careers? In conflating society’s most technocratic professions with success, Aronson fails to acknowledge the contributions of Yalies who become influential community organizers, high school teachers or non-profit workers.
Instead of dismissing the value of college sports, we should celebrate their contributions to civil society. For example, many of our government leaders come from collegiate athletics backgrounds. From Yale alone, there exists a wildly successful network of alumni who were student-athletes during their tenure, the most widely-known of which is former president George H. W. Bush ‘48, left-handed first-baseman and captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team, who took the Bulldogs all the way to the College World Series. Or consider renowned Senate Democrat Cory Booker, who played football at Stanford. To allege these leaders were not shaped by the lessons learned during their athletic careers would be an egregious mistake, as they, in their athletic pursuits, subscribed to the long-term theme of dedication to leadership that they applied to other aspects of their careers.
These Ivy League athletes are by no means disappointments to their sports either. There exists a common belief that Ivy League athletes can’t compete at the level of larger state schools. But the reality is, these athletes continue to push the standards of athletic and academic achievement. Jeremy Lin for example, played basketball at Harvard; in fact, that is what he is known for. In Major League Baseball (MLB)—the highest stage of professional baseball—there are eleven current players formerly drafted from Ivy League schools, one of whom was the starting pitcher in game seven of the 2016 World Series, Kyle Hendricks. Without Hendricks, the Cubs would not have even had the chance to break their century-long streak without a national title. He is also a graduate of Dartmouth College.
Student athletes do not detract from the academic strength of an institution like Yale. They model a unique approach to school life—a set of values—that we can all benefit from. From the uncomplaining diligence of those who quietly exit their suites at 5:00 AM after a long night of studying, to the grit of those who desperately scramble back to campus from Smilow to catch dining hall hours (before running off to a section), student athletes go beyond the commitments of the average Yale student. It is no surprise that I have heard some of my closest friends openly admire the student athlete’s ability to manage time.
That’s why I took issue with many of the statements made in Aronson’s piece. And from the reaction of the Yale community, so did many others. But personally, one statement, in particular, stood out as problematic. Aronson, in an attempt to justify the exclusion of sports culture from elite universities, made a pass at the intellect of those who play sports for a living.
“Now clearly, you don’t have to be smart to be good at most sports,” he writes. “Want proof? Just listen to what passes for English on ESPN.”
Again failing to disprove the detached Ivy-Leaguer stereotype, Aronson shows he is unaware of the socioeconomic issues of inequality that can be addressed through athletic opportunity. Some of the most hyper-talented athletes at Division 1 institutions or Ivy League schools are the first in their families to go to college. Sports, in their cases, aren’t just one way into school, but a form of upward mobility. They provide avenues for those with underprivileged backgrounds to have the same educational opportunities as the children of the superb doctors and lawyers without their sacrificing the chance to make a career of their sport.
In the second half of his statement, Aronson slams athletes for their speech in interviews and equates their jargon with incompetence. Unsurprisingly, some of those who make it to the highest levels of American sports may not have had the same background in English as the country’s most privileged and brightest students. Regardless, through institutions like Yale, these athletes are able to contribute their own personal narrative to the evolving idea that is the American Dream.
Chances are, I will never become a professional athlete worthy of interviews on ESPN. But I’m a proud student-athlete at Yale. And I’m fairly confident that what I write here surpasses Aronson’s standards of English.