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A Focused Look at MIT Athletics

By Brian Chase

SPORTS EDITOR

You could say, with the opening of the Zesinger Center and the expansion of the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) into new offices, that MIT sports should be better run than ever before. This is good, beccause as the comments of Jason E. Szuminski ’01, the MIT grad cum MLB pitcher show, there may still be some things DAPER can do to improve itself.

Szuminski, in an interview with JIm Caple on ESPN.com, said of MIT varsity baseball practices: “It was always the people who showed up at practice that got worse.” When The Tech mentioned these comments to current Men’s Baseball coach Andy Barlow, he opined that perhaps Szuminski was being sarcastic. But in a susbsequent interview with The Tech, Szuminski asserted he was sincere and that “The school didn’t do anything” to relieve the coach of his job. “The coach we had was pretty bad and they left him there for five years. It was a pretty frustrating experience,” he said.

My point today is not to argue the propriety of Szuminski’s comments, or their impact upon MIT sports. For that issue, see the accompanying article by Christopher P. Anderson. What I want to focus on is the role DAPER played in giving Szuminski this impression, and whether DAPER needs to change its policies with regards to students’ input about sports.

An important point to remember before we launch into this discussion is that DAPER has improved Men’s Baseball in the last few years, by making continual improvement on Briggs field and by hiring new baseball coach Andy Barlow last summer. And, as Anderson points out in his article, no one does more to sustain and try to publicize the accomplishments of MIT sports outside the university than the DAPER sports information department. But that does not mean that DAPER is perfect, nor does it mean there aren’t things DAPER can improve upon in its organization.

First, to address the issue of competitiveness. Barlow, in a previous Tech article, expressed the opinion that DAPER possibly had “spread itself too thin” with over 40 sports, and an assisstant coach, John J. Kogel G, was disappointed by the decreased funding for the sport recently. One might think that because MIT offers so many sports it is hard to be very good in any one of them. This is patently untrue. First, the multitude of sports accomplishments by various MIT sports, printed in these pages and elsewhere, show that MIT sports can be very competitive at their level right now, 40 squads and all.

Secondly, as the head of the athletic department Candace Royer said, “this issue has been raised within the department ... we will continue to assess our program offerings, seeking opportunities for balance while meeting the needs of our various constituencies.” So not only are MIT sports successful, but DAPER is committed to, and engaged in, making sure the sports MIT offers are the desired ones in the community, and not extraneous. So I do not think that this problem in baseball can be laid at the feet of MIT sports covering too much ground.

Nor do I think that you can pass off this problem with a flippant “Well, MIT students come here to study, not play sports.” True as that may be, MIT students have a rightful expectation to be able to compete with their peers in the sport of their choosing. Not only do sports accentuate a student’s education in many ways, but it is a vital part of student and university life. And MIT does not try to overextend its sports department by trying to field Division I teams or something like that. It is clear to any observer that athletics are not the huge programs at MIT like they are at a state school (like Colorado, which I wrote about earlier). But, having chosen Division III as its boundaries, MIT students should get a chance to compete well at the level the university has chosen.

No, the real reason I see for Szuminski’s dissatisfaction is a lack of student feedback about their satisfaction with their sport. I searched the DAPER Web site to determine what would be the optimal way to lodge a complaint about a coach, poor facilities etc. There is no orgainized way to lodge these complaints, and there doesn’t always seem to be an organized response. DAPER has a plan for reviewing the viability of their various sports teams, but their system takes a matter of years.

But personnel and facilities decisions often need to be addressed in a shorter timespan. DAPER prides itself on being able to retain its coaches. Royer says that her guesstimate at the average time a coach stays at MIT is 20 years. This fact is a double-edged sword. What if the coach being retained is a poor one? And while it is great that MIT doesn’t lose coaches often, Coach of the Year Melissa Hart (in Women’s Basketball and Soccer) left the university last year despite, according to assistant director of sports at DAPER John Benedick, their best efforts to retain her. And, the reluctance to review a bad coach or the inability of students to report their impressions about their sport may cause more students than just Szuminski to leave MIT with bitter feelings.

I feel that if MIT were to institute an organized student review forum for sports, it would help DAPER respond more quickly and ably to dissatisfaction of students to shortcomings of MIT sports. Obviously, this kind of review needs to be used intelligently, and not for students to yank coaches without good reason, or to make unreasonable demands for new facilities. But, if used correctly, a student review, I feel, would be a solid improvement for DAPER, and lead to stronger MIT sports programs in general.