Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Great Day for the Ivy League

Given the snarkiness over Harvard winning a single game in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, it will probably not take long for critics to go after Yale for being successful in ice hockey. Yale's victory yesterday -- winning the NCAA tournament 4-0 over Quinnipiac, a team that plays about 10 miles away from Yale and had beaten Yale three times this year -- is stunning. That's a #15 seed beating the #1 seed, having beat the #2 and #3 seeds along the way. That's a team with 12 losses and 3 ties winning it all. A Cinderella story. Not to mention all the standard Ivy League competitive disadvantages -- no athletic scholarships, actual homework due on Monday, admissions standards subject to league-wide regulations. (The Ivies play within the ECAC in ice hockey, but are still subject to Ivy League admissions rules. See this piece by Will Leitch in New York Magazine for a putting-to-bed of the old Pete Thamel story that started the diffidence about the Harvard basketball program.)

College sports are severely challenged. It is so hard to hold onto any idealism that places like Harvard and Yale sometimes are embarrassed by successes. The old notion that amateurism creates a level playing field is almost ridiculously false; most members of the Yale squad played in some junior league. They are not just bigger but older than their fellow students; one star celebrated his 24th birthday on the day of the great victory. In basketball, the rewards to the coaches for success are so lavish that they have overwhelming incentives to cut corners and stretch the rules to win. The coach of the team that beat Harvard in the NCAA tournament had a compensation schedule that earned him exponentially increasing amounts as he progressed through the tournament: from $25,000 to $75,000 for reaching the Sweet Sixteen, and had he gone further, $125,000 for reaching the Elite Eight, $300,000 for reaching the Final Four, and $675,000 for winning the national championship. (One of the few correct uses of the term "exponentially increasing" in ordinary prose.) All that on top of a $900,000 base salary. No wonder he was willing to take on a star player who had already graduated from another university but still had a year of eligibility left, when that school concluded that the player was more trouble than he was worth.

(I regularly teach a Freshman Seminar on athletic amateurism, and how it was never actually intended to level any playing fields. I'll be offering it again in the fall of 2013.)

Spelman will not be the last college to decide the whole enterprise of NCAA sports isn't worth the expense. I'll bet there is trouble coming, first for college football but also for hockey, as the data piles up about the long term effects of repeated concussions. For some schools, dropping contact sports for health reasons will be more palatable than dropping them to save money.

But I maintain my idealism about competitive athletics as a vehicle for the youthful expression of the spirit of excellence, a sphere of achievement that is protected from, if hardly unsullied by, the mercenary compromises of real life. I can't say it any better than George Santayana said it in a sort of throwaway piece he wrote for the Harvard alumni magazine in 1894.
It may seem a ridiculous thing, and yet I think it true, that our athletic life is the most conspicuous and promising rebellion against this industrial tyranny. We elude Mammon only for a few years, which the Philistines think are wasted. We succumb to him soon after leaving college. We sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, and the ancestral garden of the mind for building lots. That garden too often runs to seed, even if we choose a liberal profession, and is overgrown with the thistles of a trivial and narrow scholarship. But wile we are young, and as yet amount to nothing, we retain the privilege of infinite potentiality. The poor actuality has not yet taken its place, and in giving one thing made everything else for ever unattainable. But in youth the intellectual part is too immature to bear much fruit; that would come alter if the freedom could be retained. The body alone has reached perfection, and very naturally the physical life is what tends to occupy the interval of leisure with its exuberances. Such is the origin of our athletics. Their chief value is that they are the first fruits of that spontaneous life, of which the higher manifestations are not suffered to appear. Perhaps it is well that the body should take the lead, since that is the true and safe order of nature. The rest, if it comes, will then rest on a sounder basis.
Congratulations, Yale. Wish it were us but glad it is you!

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