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Confronting IM Ringers

Ruth Miller

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, as I lay in a gurney at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, the doctor on staff asked me a lot of questions. Between the small talk, insurance procedure, and the actual diagnosis, one stood out as a bit odd.

“Oh, MIT? So you probably don’t play any sports that I should be warning you against?”

Maybe it was the painkillers, or the fact that my collegiate athletic career honestly consists of two intramural hockey games and a PE class, but I should have pointed out to him that our men’s water polo team just won the Division III National Championship. I should have bragged about our 41 varsity sports teams. Instead, I just nodded as I lay in my gurney, thinking about the kinetics of the accident I’d just had and wishing I had a basic grasp of human anatomy so I could understand what he was talking about.

It is no secret that MIT isn’t renowned for its athletics, but we do have a massive intramural sports program. The range of IM sports offered is only topped by their sheer accessibility even for beginners through competition in the C and D leagues. In the case of ice hockey, D league is a league for people who can barely skate. I didn’t put on ice skates until a few months ago, and only attempted to play IM ice hockey when I was continually assured that in at the D league level, I’d be playing against other people that couldn’t skate. Imagine my surprise when I learned I was goaltending against a team with four people that played at an A league skill level. MIT holds a reputation for academic honesty, and it’s a shame this level of honesty doesn’t extend to other aspects of students’ lives.

High schools and colleges exist that put more emphasis on sports than MIT. At those places, a few men’s varsity teams shadow the rest of the athletics programs. Those individuals that aren’t the very best are never given a chance for glory. Some people never try, some concede to compete in the shadows, and others become perennial tailgaters.

MIT is not a place for tailgaters. The attitude that it takes to survive here does not condone spectating. While other schools forbid their freshmen to do research, MIT champions the UROP. While other schools have a measly two-week winter break, MIT created the Independent Activities Period. While other schools have a few student organizations representing a slim range of interests, MIT is home to hundreds of clubs and organizations. MIT is designed to accommodate people with a diverse range of interests, and strives to encourage its students to try something new. This philosophy applies to every aspect of student life, including athletics via the IM program.

Unfortunately, that theory fails when someone purposefully competes in a league well below their skill level. These “ringers” ruin the experience for everyone else, and take the fun out of the game. The IM program suffers because newcomers are intimidated out of playing. Beginners suffer because they are deprived of the experience of trying something new. As this continues, a large portion of the student body could eventually come to dismiss IM sports as an option in their daily activities, for fear of certain failure.

In an atmosphere where students strive for the highest grades in the most difficult classes, why is it acceptable to make an exception for athletics? Or is this just another case of blowing the curve for the rest of the class?

Either way, it doesn’t appear that people are going to stop anytime soon. It is in the athletic department’s best interest to find obvious ringers and ban them from play. Start by creating more opportunities for talented players to compete at their own level, but if they continue to saturate the C and D leagues, enforce consequences.

MIT’s athletic program draws its strength from its athletes. We might not have the fastest, the strongest, or the largest athletes on our teams, but we do have the smartest. We also have an atmosphere that fosters teamwork and competition with oneself. These are great qualities to have in an athlete. With the diverse opportunities already available, MIT should be an athletics powerhouse. If nothing else, more students should be taking advantage of IM sports.

Is it worth it to the department of athletics to take an interest in the integrity of the IM sports program? It’s up to their referees to make that call.