Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Superiority of the Ivy League Athlete

by Tom Haushalter

Amid the bloat and spectacle of the National Collegiate Athletic Association—an industry that spends billions each year, earns billions in revenue, the lion's share of it funneled in and out of football and basketball programs, not a penny of which, of course, its 400,000+ athletes (Division I-III combined) will ever see—it's easy to forget that intercollegiate sports began as an idea that nobody thought would catch on.

That was 1852, football and basketball still yet to be invented. A kid named James Whiton, Jr., a 3rd-year Yale student and the bow oarsman for the Yale Boat Club, on a train ride through New Hampshire that passed right alongside legendarily gorgeous Lake Winnipesaukee, had a thought: Wouldn't it be something if we got a bunch of people up here to watch a race between Yale and Harvard?

Whiton got his crew on board with the idea, then Yale uttered college sports' first-ever fightin' words: that Harvard get up to Lake Winnipesaukee "to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges."

It would be nice to say, as they say, the rest is history. It might also be nice to say that Yale backed up their talk. But Harvard's one boat, Oneida, against Yale's two, Undine and Shawmut, beat them both. And it would be another three years until Yale got up the nerve to issue another challenge. Harvard won that one, too.

After that first race in 1852, regardless of the hundreds of spectators who crowded the hillsides, the notion of teams from different colleges competing in games was dismissed by presidents and deans, even by the New York newspaper that reviewed the race, predicting it would "make little stir in a busy world." Nor did campus life in those days much allow for idle, ostensibly meaningless activity, when there were serious texts to master, which the world depended on.

It bears repeating: this was before football and basketball.

Nowadays, about 48 million people pass the turnstiles at NCAA events each year, the ticket sales for which underwrite sizable percentages of university's operating budgets—to say nothing of the intake from merchandise and television contracts. If the Harvard-Yale race of 1852 was the boutique outlet of sporting competitions, then surely March Madness and the Bowl Championship Series are the big-box retailers of athletic entertainment, hocking brands like Duke, Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, and UCLA. 

Nowadays, although Ivy teams and athletes can—and do—still command national respect in sports like hockey and (appropriately) rowing, by and large we remember when they were great. It's for this reason that the Harvard-Yale football rivalry and annual broadcast of The Game invariably includes a black-and-white montage of leather-helmeted heroes past.

And if an Ivy does turn heads, such as when the 2012-13 Harvard men's basketball team, earning only its second berth in the NCAA tournament since 1946, upset 3rd-seeded New Mexico in the second round, everyone is gobsmacked at how a bunch of smart kids without athletic scholarships even manage a layup.

Which is exactly what they should be wondering.

In a new book from Northeastern University Press, called Ivy League Athletes: Profiles in Excellence at America's Most Competitive Schools, author Sal Maiorana follows nine student-athletes from seven Ivy League campuses through the 2011-2012 season, and shows how they balance extraordinary effort in the field with even more extraordinary effort in the classrooms of America's most prestigious, arguably most challenging colleges.

Among the students, we meet Melanie Baskind, a pre-med senior at Harvard and captain of both the soccer (fall) and lacrosse (spring) teams—who deserves a citation under any definition of an overachiever.

There's Greg Zebrack, a senior baseballer who transferred to Penn as a junior, coming from the University of Southern California, where he had been recruited to play for one of the best baseball programs in the country—only to tear it up on the east coast and turn the heads of Major League scouts.

And Sheila Dixon, whose life story—from an infant abandoned by her mother at the hospital to an adopted child who realized how truly fortunate she was—propelled her to work harder than most kids, leading her to Brown and to becoming one of the key members of the women's basketball team.

In any discussion of present-day Ivy student-athletes who exemplify the best of the NCAA, it's impossible not to steer the focus to the preternaturally gifted long-distance runner who's spent the last few seasons shattering records and stacking up national titles. Dartmouth senior Abbey D'Agostino, who was just beginning her ascent when Maiorana was researching his book (and isn't one of the nine athletes profiled), has been so successful in her sport as to transcend not just ideas of Ivy greatness but of greatness on any level. (She's determined to compete in the next Olympic Games.)

Last year Runner's World featured D'Agostino and her "unlikely domination," charting her path from freshman whose coach saw a quiet potential to NCAA champion by her junior year. Apart from her typically intense training regimen, it's something of a mystery how swift and steep her mastery of running has been. Keeping in mind that D'Agostino, like a true student-athlete, allows herself no slack when it comes to completing coursework before she heads to the track—what is her secret to winning? According to those who know her:
Her greatest power . . . is what's going on inside, a psychological strength and running IQ of undetermined origin. "She's very smart; she thinks during races," [coach Mark] Coogan says. "She's patient. A lot of people can't run a 5K; they are wasting all this energy, zigzagging in and out, instead of just running for 2 miles to get where you belong. She's really good at that. She trusts that it's all going to happen. . ."
Abbey D'Agostino (Photo: Dartmouth Athletics)
Is it worthwhile to wonder, as we consider mental fortitude of "undetermined origin," if Ivy athletes are uniquely capable of equating athletic challenges with intellectual challenges? In other words, for they who cannot afford to skip class for practice, on which no athletic scholarship rides—thus have little expectation of one day going pro—do the qualities that make them our brightest minds have anything to do with how they approach their sport? Advanced calculus or a four-minute mile: a game is a game.

NFL quarterback and Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick, in his foreword to Maiorana's book, adds: "[In the Ivy League] a certain purity exists because each athlete is competing out of a love and passion for his or her sport." And he goes on to say about his decision to attend Harvard:
The recruiting pitch didn't revolve around the state-of-the-art athletic facilities or the athletic dorms or the preferential treatment you would receive being an athlete at the university. The recruiting pitch was the challenge. It was the fact that . . . the classroom always came first. And it was the fact that, with all the exogenous pressure that came with being a student . . . you were still expected to perform on the field. 
For Fitzpatrick, D'Agostino, and all the student-athletes in Maiorana's tribute, the point of these collegiate sports is not obscured by inordinately bright stadium lights, nor by money thrown at them or trophies promised (though winning is never a bad thing). Since that first crew competition on the lake in 1852, each game is a display of agility and endurance all in pursuit of its own form of perfection.

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