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The Time Has Come for Division I Basketball at MIT

Column by David Berl and Jeremy Cohen
Sports ColumnISTS

Dear President Vest,

Permit me to fancify.

In a school known more for its academics than its epidemics, basketball is catching. Hordes of eager Engineers have set up camp outside of DuPont Gymnasium, anxiously awaiting Saturday night's pivotal matchup with Big East rival Georgetown. The winner of this one heads to the NCAA Tournament, the loser to the NIT, but either way the old stone campus will rock.

The time has come to bring Division I basketball to MIT. Let's face it - our campus borders on comatose. Our school spirit has become Jack Daniels on a test night. Never in the last five years have students banded together to protest anything more than the granularity of the grading system. The closest thing we have had to a sit-down strike is the nightly gathering of 120 squatters in the computer cluster in the fifth floor of the Student Center. Previous generations had Vietnam, Muhammed Ali, and disco music. Just give us basketball.

Certainly bringing high-caliber basketball players to the Institute could compromise our academic integrity. It is rare to find a student-athlete who is superb in both respects. Nonetheless, schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and Duke have managed to be competitive on the basketball court and in U.S. News and World Report, so a precedent for the maintenance of high athletic and academic standards does exist. A high-profile basketball program could work wonders for MIT, bringing fame and fortune to the south of Cambridge.

The potential revenues generated by a premier college basketball team are mind-boggling. Including ticket sales, concessions, television broadcasts, athletic apparel endorsements, and conference kickbacks, the Institute would stand to reap millions of dollars, money that can be directly funneled into research, scholarships, and a well-deserved raise for the president (it couldn't hurt). Nike, Reebok, and Fila would all love to claim that the smartest students in the world wear their shoes. Champion could start a "Not Just for Jocks" campaign featuring super-nerd and former Provost Mark S. Wrighton in a hooded sweatshirt and kneepads. MIT will never again be confused with the Montana Institute of Trucking.

As hard as it is to believe, the caliber of student applying to MIT will actually improve. Countless outstanding students every year choose not to attend MIT, not because our academics are lacking, but because our public image is downright woeful. MIT is perceived as a bastion of bitterness, where hacking and computer games are the only escape from mathematical oppression. We are the acme of acne and that needs to change.

Major college athletics will give us a chance to showcase MIT as a school that "works hard and plays hard," where good times and good grades don't have to be mutually exclusive. Just as Boston College doubled its applicants the year after Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy so too will we be deluged by the high-school elite if our public persona receives a promotion.

To make it happen, we have to convince the players to play here. No small task indeed. First off, we need to shed the nickname "Engineers." Somehow having a giant Dilbert mascot waving a slide rule madly about doesn't conjure up images of greatness nor strike fear into an opponent's heart.

Our suggestion would be to use the natural alternative "Beavers"; it's simple, it's unique, and every high school male from Albany to Albuquerque will ditch his South Carolina "Cocks" hat for ours. We'll also need a slogan much like "The Ramblin' Wreck of Georgia Tech." Our choice is "The Geeks-to-Be of MIT," but we're flexible on this one. Can't you just hear the tympanic tonsils of Dick Vitale screaming in jubilation, "It's geek city, baybeee!"

We'll also need a first-class arena, a long-overdue extension of campus. We will probably have to look to our friends at DuPont for assistance, but this is an investment that will pay off in the long run. If students are allowed to sit at courtside as the Cameron Crazies do at Duke, the Dean Dome will succumb to the Beaver Dam in discussions of "home-field advantage," and the fans will flock here. We can put on a technical show like no other school on Earth, this will give us the forum to do so.

Boston is the greatest college city in the world - if the scholarships come, so will the great players. MIT has an international recruiting base superior to any university anywhere, and basketball is rapidly rising to meet soccer in international popularity. Well-established, successful professional leagues exist in Israel, Greece, and Turkey just to name a few.

We will have a recruiting niche carved by no other institution - we will appeal globally to the outstanding athlete who also desires an outstanding technical education. Not every jock is a jerk. There have been a segment of NBA players capable of handling the academic rigors of MIT; David Robinson scored over 1300 on his SAT, Chris Dudley attended Yale, and Bill Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar at Princeton. If we bait the hook with scholarships, style, and a degree from the best technical school in the history of mankind, the big fish - the seven-foot tall ones with tomahawk jams and outside jumpers - will bite.

We have the unique opportunity to build a tradition that will wake our school from its social hibernation and make the bed of the Charles River a hotbed of basketball hysteria. President Vest, the ball is in your court. Geeks of the world, unite.

Sincerely,

David Berl '97 Jeremy Cohen, '97