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Why do we play sports at MIT?

Words on Sport/

David Rothstein->

Why do we play

sports at MIT?


Three weeks ago, Sports Illustrated ran a story titled "Smart Ball: You think college football players can't be rocket scientists?" It highlighted three Division III football programs -- MIT, Swarthmore College and the University of Chicago -- where academic books come before playbooks, where one student's academic tuition may be more than the school's football budget, where (at MIT) the "combined SAT scores of any player are higher than the total weight of the offensive line."

It's a fun article. Read it. (But you won't find SI in Barker Library, folks.)

Tongue-and-cheek is the way most journalists treat sports at MIT. Remember the media coverage of our football team two years ago, when it entered the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division III? Hey, look over there, cackled The New York Times, a bunch of underweight nerds playing -- oh, stop me, I'm hurting myself -- football. Hah, hah, hah.


Well, tongue-and-cheek is one way -- certainly the easy way -- to write about sports at MIT. But ask a few coaches and players, look at a few programs, and what you will find is, underneath the compromises made to accommodate studying schedules, most sports at MIT are dead serious.

Never mind that we may be a step slower, a few pounds lighter, a bit weaker than our competitors from across the river, or from Hah-hah-ha-vad (sorry . . .). Never mind that it is hard to practice or play after an all-nighter.

We have teams like women's volleyball, which has won two New England Women's Eight Conference championships (of the three held), participated in the NCAA Division III national championships four times in the 1980s, taking second place in 1984 and fourth in 1986.

The track team has enjoyed tremendous success, recording a 62-meet undefeated streak from 1985-1989, winning countless indoor and outdoor New England Division III titles, and last winter placing second in the indoor national championships.

Then there was the women's soccer team, which last year won the NEW8 tournament in a stunning upset. How's that for a "nerd" team? (I did not see the tournament. In fact, last year I saw no more than half-an-hour of women's soccer -- or men's, for that matter. But I have that rare talent that sportswriters have, call it TOTAL imagined RECALL.)


Nobody will ever say that sports has even come close to rivaling the importance of academics at MIT. Nobody should try. But how many of you wrote about athletics in your college applications? How many highlighted this or that achievement or role on the playing field?

Quite a few, I would bet.

Sports at MIT -- at any university, in fact, that has a modicum of common sense with respect to the role of athletics -- represents . . . well, you all know the clich'es: an excuse to exercise; a diversion from the rigors of laboratory life; a social venue;

a focusing activity that, indeed, helps your academics.

But sports also represents a very serious activity for the athletes -- about 20 percent of the undergraduate body -- who play on one or more of MIT's 37 varsity teams. Perhaps other teams do not want to take MIT seriously; that is their concern.

The bottom line here is that we play sports for recreation and diversion. We play at times to purge ourselves of some of the frustrations of schoolwork and life in general. We play with the knowledge that, while we spend inordinate amounts of time -- relatively speaking, at least -- at practice, at games, in the training room, we are here in Cambridge to get an education (or an apprenticeship?). And playing sports can only help.