If academics teach us how to think, and artists teach us how to feel, then athletes teach us what our bodies are capable of — a lesson that should be valued in and of itself, because the things that we do with our bodies, and the ways we engage them, are meaningful and of importance.
Many Harvard students are happy to cheer on professional athletes, or go to Harvard-Yale, but just aren’t convinced that Harvard needs to draw the top student-athletes in addition to prizing young people at the heights of other fields.
Yet in some respects, Harvard is the “sportiest” school of them all: Harvard College maintains 42 “nation-leading Division I intercollegiate sports teams” and a full 20 percent of students at Harvard College play a varsity sport. Outside of moments of controversy, like when the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal dominated headlines, the lives of these students go largely ignored by non-athletes (or non-athletic-regular-people, “NARPs”) and a campus culture animated by late-night study sessions.
As part of my journey to uncover the stories of merit and meritocracy at Harvard, especially in light of the controversies, it seemed paramount to gain a glimpse into the worlds of some of Harvard’s student-athletes. I spoke with Matthew R. Thomas ’21, Charlotte F. Ruhl ’22, and Nathaniel C. Leskovec ‘23 to learn about their experiences with athletics on campus. While these three aren't reflective of the more than 1000 student-athletes at the College, their accounts paint a dynamic picture of the talent and competition central to Harvard’s brand.
Ruhl, who “walked-on” the softball team her sophomore year, has experienced life at Harvard from the perspective of both an athlete and a non-athlete. She said she understands the perceptions of non-athletes who feel that athletes are unfairly given special attention during the admissions process in the form of athletic recruitment, but believes that it’s important for Harvard to honor the skill and effort it takes to even get to the place where one has the potential to be recruited.
During normal school years, Ruhl, Thomas, and Leskovec maintained schedules that incorporated about 30 hours of training and games during their seasons.
Thomas made clear how the hours he spends playing baseball taught him the value of time and efficiency. While these skills aren’t unique to athletics by any means, as these athletes explained, being studious and quick-witted aren’t traits patented to academia. Leskovec, a football player, broke down his team’s schedule for me, detailing how much time they spend watching hours of footage of different games, taking notes, and collaborating on strategy. Ruhl explained how playing softball has shown her how to instantaneously adapt to changes on the field.
Leskovec and Thomas both remarked on how their careers in sport have taught them not only what it means to succeed as part of a team, but also how to lose and grow from their mistakes — a lesson many of our politicians would do well to learn. Though we often imagine a disconnect between being an athlete and being a student, these student-athletes integrate the two as cohesive parts of their identities.
When all is said and done, being a person who treats others with respect and decency is actually more important than acing the SATs or other accomplishments that many view athletes as lacking. The student-athletes who put in lifetimes of work into training, practice, and games deserve (at minimum) the respect of their peers and teachers.
The disregard of the work of the athletes in our academic institution also speaks to our culture’s disregard for professions that utilize our bodies — which makes itself apparent every time the minimum wage debate comes up in national politics.
The market has told us which skills are valuable and which aren’t. For years our culture has prioritized STEM education and students have been told that STEM pursuits are the “best-paying” and our learned biases are highly reflective of that. Many students of the arts and humanities are acutely aware of the undervaluing of their fields, but are less sensitive to the student-athletes who experience the constant devaluing of their contributions to Harvard’s campus by fellow students under the yoke of intellectual elitism. Yet, if we allow the market to dictate which traits and skills are valuable and which aren’t, what are we left with as individuals needing agency and inspiration?
While 90 percent of recruited athletes eventually gain acceptance to Harvard, I’d imagine similar numbers for the top students in other fields. Recruited athletes at Harvard are more likely to be white and come from upwardly mobile backgrounds than other Harvard students proving that athletics, and like high school GPAs and SAT scores, are not immune to the race and class dynamics that stratify American society.
The complexity of admission criteria means there are a plethora of diverging opinions on the subject, and this complexity is actually a good thing. The way our society comprehends merit shouldn’t be monolithic. It ought to be diverse and flexible. The presence of athletes on campus, and every other student who embodies passion and effort, unquestionably adds texture to this diversity.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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