The psyche of the Yale student athlete

Graph and data collection by Camille Weisenbach

On Feb. 27, 2017, a Yale Daily News op-ed sent angry whirlwinds through campus by arguing for the end of varsity athletic recruitment into Yale College. Students were quick to ridicule and refute the op-ed for everything from its condescending ableism to its lackluster rhetorical technique. Responses from within the athletic community have been especially robust (see: Vermeer’s “A Message from ‘Dumb’ Athletes,” Stuper’s “Letter: 2.28,” Lainoff’s “I’m A Disabled Female Athlete and I’m Here to Stay”).

The article was the latest iteration in a tired debate about the merit of varsity athletics on Yale’s campus. In fact, as Lowet mentions in “Athletics and Community At Yale,” attacks and responses regarding the academic deservingness of varsity athletes come along every few years (see: Zupsic’s 2011 “Athletes are Yalies, Too,” Sobotka’s 2013 “Equal Athletic Appreciation”). Brian Tompkins, a senior administrator in the athletics department, described such articles as tornadoes—they come along every few years, creating a massive uproar, and then leave as quickly as they’ve arrived.

As aforementioned responses have carefully explained, athletes are clearly capable students. The vast majority of them successfully balance intensive athletic demands with heavy course loads, in addition to all the extra-curricular activities, student jobs, research opportunities, and student groups they participate in alongside their peers. They complete strenuous majors, just like their non-athlete classmates. In the class of 2016, there are 194 listed student athlete graduates. Of the 188 for which academic data are available, 20 percent of them majored in STEM fields, and 15 double-majored. They all negotiate trenchant scheduling conflicts with no additional privileges commonly found at peer institutions, such as afternoon class moratoriums, athlete-specific tutors, or “athletic credits.” Yale student-athletes are undeniably students first, athletes second.

Furthermore, the athletics department knows this fact. Several administrators in the athletics office verified that while recruitment procedures vary by team, the admissions department evaluates each prospective athlete’s academic profile and informs the coach of the applicant’s chance of admittance—not the other way around, as is commonly misperceived. The only significant difference between the experience of athlete and non-athlete high school applicants is a matter of timing: athletes approved by the admissions department often receive “likely letters” in the fall of their senior year, which give them some measure of confidence (not a guarantee) that their application decision will be favorable provided they maintain their current academic standing.

Clearly, student-athletes become influential leaders, just like their non-athlete peers. To suggest that athletes are categorically less likely to become “superb doctors, writers, scientists, lawyers, politicians and engineers” than budding high school debate team captains (assuming the two are somehow mutually exclusive) is not only incorrect, it’s exactly the opposite of reality. Of the 159 student-athletes in Class of 2016 accounted for, 108 are pursuing advanced degrees or careers in finance, consulting, and law. In interviews and conversations with potential employers in the consulting field, I heard firsthand how highly many employers value the traits uniquely athletics instills in young people. Many hold leadership positions in student organizations on campus. Student-athletes are undeniably leaders, and employers know this.

I realize with a grimace how last week’s assault on my presence at Yale would have damaged me if I had read it four years ago as a freshman. Like most other freshman, I struggled for months to find my footing at Yale; I exhibited classic signs of the “impostor syndrome” where I felt like the one mistake that sneaked through Yale admissions. Budding friendships with classmates from Exeter and with non-athletes only exacerbated these daily apprehensions that I, the publicly educated student-athlete, did not belong, that I could not excel here. However, unlike students who find their niches and leave behind feelings of inadequacy, I waged war with self-doubt stemming from my athlete status well into my sophomore year. In fact, I continue to enter classrooms and evening discussion sections as a senior with a feeling that I have something to prove to be respected as an academic equal.

Nor am I alone. Many student athletes on my team and other teams have relayed similar experiences of feeling pre-judged or dismissed until they prove intellectually capable, in a way their non-athlete suitemates, band-mates, and lab partners have not. There is an apparent cultural double standard whereby Yalies make light of skipping class due to post-Woads sleep deprivation, or procrastinating on a problem set, when non-athletes do it, yet construe student-athletes who do the same as caring less about school, as athletes. Athletes realize this perception early, and it burrows into us as freshmen. It took time for me to counteract effects of such internalized un-belonging by developing meaningful friendships with non-athlete peers based on mutual respect.

All evidence considered, the op-ed author shamelessly promoted his narrow vision of what Yale University is, and who ought to constitute it. I came across the tornado in question as I walked from my game theory midterm to my constitutional law lecture, and I wondered how anyone could defend this line of reasoning, which would sound blatantly perverse if the term ‘student-athlete’ was replaced with ‘woman,’ ‘person of color,’ ‘disabled person,’ or even ‘Cole Aronson,’ as the Rumpus spoofed. I wish I could convey to the freshmen on my team how they belong at Yale just as much as their suitemates, and that contrary to inflammatory YDN pieces, they are not the five students in the Yale Class of 2020 that sneaked through admissions, that don’t belong, that cannot excel here. They are future writers, scientists, coders, and doctors, alongside all their classmates. I hope my non-athlete peers will continue to see their value and celebrate their contributions, too. So please, let us stop asking every few years whether athletes have the necessary qualifications to attend Yale. Instead, let us focus on empowering each other, athletes and non-athletes alike, to rise to Yale’s mission, both in and out of the classroom, of “improving the world today and for future generations.”

Many thanks to Robyn Acampora, Brian Tompkins, Jess Chrabaszcz, and Johnathan Macey for their input and feedback on this piece.

One Response

  1. Thu says:

    Saw this on a friend’s FB feed, and was surprised to see a similar problem playing out at another [elite?] institution. Rice University’s undergrad support of our athletes in general (via attendance at games) always seem to pale in comparison to every other school out there, so I thought it (the discounting of athletes’ academic abilities) was a just Rice problem… for such ‘liberal’ campuses as ours, academic elitism persists a little too strongly…

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