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Athletics Needs a Place at MIT

Column by Mike Purucker

Sports Writer

I was riding across the Charles River a few nights ago when, right around the 250 Smoot mark, I overheard a conversation that was all too familiar. An MIT varsity softball player on the bus was complaining because she had to miss practice because of her 5.310 lab. She said her coach understood the conflict and was not upset at her, but still she felt bad about missing practice.

Previously, I have both experienced and heard other student-athletes share frustration over laboratory and other time conflicts with athletics. Some instructors have disapproved of my efforts to finish labs quickly on days of games, while others have implied that my priorities need some adjustment.

I appreciate their concern, but the truth is that I am perfectly capable of setting my priorities. Like many other MIT students, I am simply trying to maximize my MIT experience by being involved in extracurricular activities -- including intercollegiate athletics. My goal while at college is to fully develop as many of my personal attributes and talents as I can. While scholarship is indeed a large part of that goal, there is much more for me to learn than purely academics. Athletics and other activities provide an outlet for both personal improvement and enjoyment in the collegiate environment.

Student-athletes at MIT represent a rare breed among today's college athletes. Their sportsmanship and dedication are reminiscent of a purer era in intercollegiate competition. Like the Olympians now returning home, they participate in sports the way they were intended. Academics are not compromised in the least; nor should they be. The result is that everyone participating in athletics at MIT does so because he or she truly wants to develop the body as well as the mind. There are very few superstars, but many staunch competitors.

But MIT athletics are much more than just physical competition. Consider the Athletic Department's mission statement: "To provide an adaptive, high quality, student-oriented physical education, recreation, and athletic program that emphasizes participation, competition, confidence, and leadership. To enhance the MIT human environment for the entire MIT community." I would like to add teamwork, discipline, resilience, and perseverance to the list of qualities mentioned above.

I have benefited greatly from my experience as a member of the MIT varsity baseball team. My personal achievements have been satisfying, but they pale considerably in comparison to the rewards of working with others on a team. Bonds made on the playing field extend beyond practice time, and the camaraderie of the locker room can lift my spirits after a challenging academic day. Athletics also provides a sense of purpose and excitement. I don't normally wake up thinking, "Yes! I have a 10-page paper to write today!" But an afternoon game against Harvard University or Boston College tends to get me excited enough to face all the demands of an MIT day.

I have also been fortunate to work with the leaders of the Athletic Department, who achieve their goals better than perhaps any other university in the country. Yet despite this high level of success, the MIT Athletic Department is constantly threatened by the nature of the MIT environment.

Time is a precious commodity, and participation in athletics places a heavy demand on the time of student-athletes. But the problem is getting worse. The MIT community is increasingly infringing upon the 5 to 7 p.m. time slot, which is designated for non-academic use by the MIT administration. As this time is eroded, athletic games and practices become more difficult to attend, and both individual and team performances suffer.

The essence of the problem is that the majority of the MIT faculty do not understand the benefits of athletic participation and cannot identify with the students' desires to compete. It is not a question of whether or not they care; in fact, most faculty members are accommodating when a conflict is brought to their attention. But most faculty members simply cannot comprehend the rewards of intercollegiate athletics, and as a result, the various athletic programs at MIT suffer. More importantly, the individual student-athletes at MIT suffer.

For example, the Freshman Advisor Seminars are almost unanimously hailed as a tremendous success. While the merits of the seminars are many, their late afternoon meeting times impose a heavy burden on students participating in athletics (and other activities). I find it highly unlikely that the seminar times will change, since the only apparent loss is of an athletic nature. But imagine if the problem involved Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs. The faculty would feel perfectly justified in demanding an adjustment, since they can fully relate to the values of UROPs.

But the faculty also should learn to understand and appreciate the values present in athletic participation, and fight just as hard to promote and preserve it in students' lives. I believe MIT is a more well-rounded school then its reputation projects; and to a certain extent, I believe the MIT administration is comfortable with that perception in the outside world. It helps to maintain our mystique.

However, I feel differently. I believe an effort should be made to publicize more of MIT's non-academic successes. Ironically, this could improve the academic quality of MIT students, since some top-notch students do not consider enrolling at MIT for fear that their pursuits of non-academic interests will end. Maybe the faculty and administration could relate better if they understood that for many students, athletic participation serves as another means of pursuing excellence.

Ideally, an MIT could emerge that allows its students more freedom in pursuing individual activities, regardless of their reasons. I envision an MIT that sustains the worthy academic standards of excellence without requiring the restriction of many other aspects of life. All that is necessary is a more open-minded attitude among the administration, faculty, and students.

Let the students decide the proper mix of academics and activities. If students choose to participate in collegiate activities at the expense of a lower GPA, then accommodate them, don't scold them. MIT students are widely accepted as the brightest and best students in the world; I believe they know better than anyone else how to maximize their collegiate experiences and further their personal development.

Don't misunderstand my message here -- I am proud to be an MIT student-athlete. I have personally discussed this matter with several members of the administration, and I am convinced that they truly want to further the mission of the athletic department, as well as other activities on campus. For instance, last term, the Committee on Discipline sent a letter to all MIT students, telling us that "MIT should serve not only to educate the reasoning mind, but also to develop the inner character that gives meaning to a productive life."

For many students at MIT, athletics is an integral part of the character development process that should occur in the collegiate environment. I challenge the administration and faculty to make the effort to understand the value of athletics to a large percentage of the MIT community. At the very least, the administration should adhere to its aforementioned statement, and encourage character development. However, they also should be flexible enough to encourage development in ways students prefer, not solely in efforts more favorable to the administration. The MIT experience has the potential to be much more rewarding, but that will only occur if everyone at MIT -- administration, faculty, and students -- truly wants it to happen.