Look Before You Leap: A Response to “It’s Actually Just a Game”

By Guest Contributor

I am Jake Nidenberg, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. and a junior here at Middlebury College. I am a declared Mathematics and Economics double major and a member of the Men’s Varsity Basketball team. I am writing in response to “It’s Actually Just a Game,” the Notes from the Desk by Hannah Bristol ’14.5 and Isaac Baker ’14.5 that appeared in the Campus on Jan. 22. In case you may think I fall into some sort of stereotype of yours, I would also like to inform you that I am currently taking Black & White photography for J-term, I am a class shy of a minor in Classics, and enjoy exploring the nature surrounding this wonderful town and state as much as the next Midd kid. There are few aspects of this small liberal arts college in Vermont that I have not taken full advantage of. That is who I am and that is the point of view from which this opinion is created in my first ever submission to a school newspaper.

Just as you mentioned in your Op-Ed, the divide between ‘NARPs’ and athletes is indeed apparent from day one at orientation. However, here is my first clarification: I went through orientation and I was able to fully commit to both my preseason ‘captain’s practice’ for basketball as well as all orientation events and activities. If there were instances where kids were not able to fully commit, it was specific to that individual’s own priorities and capabilities. Did having a sports team give me a leg up in finding a friend group early on? Yes. Were there times when I was nervous and unsure of solidifying not only the ‘right’ friends but friends at all outside the two kids in the class of 2016 that went to high school with me? Also, yes. Building friendships is often simply a product of bonding over similar interests; just because my interest was basketball and I was able to find others equally as interested and dedicated to the sport so early on makes me fortunate but should not be held against me. As you said, clubs of many kinds exist and serve the similar purpose of bringing together people of similar interests. Just because there might be a slight time delay in terms of access to these groups when compared with a varsity team does not make the two unequal.

I am here to cast some light on just how “privileged” we are as athletes. To compare our experiences as DIII athletes at an undersized college in New England to the NFL, or even to a large DI athletic powerhouse like Florida State, is comparing apples and oranges. Your first point about the allocation of financial resources is an area where I am poorly educated and a topic your piece may be able to reasonably draw attention to. But again, I will respond to the things you have said and also paint an accurate picture for both of you and anyone else interested in what it feels like to be treated like “superiors” and to benefit from the funding you have so much to say about.

You say we rarely prove our worth. I feel as though I have “proven my worth” in the 14 years of serious commitment to playing basketball preceding my time at Middlebury. A high school athlete must have had enough exposure and perceived talent to get recruited to come here amongst the vast sea of others so desperate to play in college. In contrast, though I am sure of some exceptions, I know of dozens Rugby and Crew members (I choose these two sports to mirror your examples) who began their career playing the sport here at Middlebury—what have they done to deserve funding? There is a reason some extracurriculars are funded as varsity programs and others are not. Middlebury has only so much money and can allocate it in only so many places if it wishes to have successful programs in nationally competitive sports. Those who had an undying passion for, like you said, Fly Fishing or Crew or any other extracurricular at which they have spent somewhere around 80% of their lives pursuing should have put more consideration into what they wanted out of their college experience and maybe picked a place better suited to their interests and desires. I made a calculated decision to come to Middlebury and the deciding factor was my decision to play basketball at a nationally competitive level. Middlebury was a place to pursue that level of competition, both on and off the court. If you disagree with Midd’s financial allocation, I think you should have spent more time interviewing someone who deals with such matters before publishing an Op-Ed with baseless facts.

Moving on to our “bloated budget:” Yes, our budget covers Pepin Gymnasium, which is completely open to the public aside from the two hours a day we are practicing. Yes, it covers our locker room; which, by the way, we share with both the soccer and baseball teams. We get let in to our locker after our season has already begun once soccer is finished and get kicked out of it early because the baseball season is starting up, right around the time we are competing in the NESCAC playoffs (and hopefully the NCAA tournament). Yes, it covers travel (sometimes in buses or vans which are comically too small to fit my 6 foot 7 inch, 240 pound frame); also, please tell me if $25 to feed myself for all but one or two provided meals for road trips spanning Friday through Sunday or if $100 to feed myself for the mandatory two weeks while I am at Middlebury during the holidays with no dining services seems “bloated” to you. If it weren’t for our parents’ dedication to (and financial subsidization of) us as passionate, young student-athletes we would not eat on road trips. By the way, the athletic “gear” you might see us wear around campus is created and purchased by yours truly with not even a discount provided for by the school. Lastly, yes, it covers coaching but not for two of the four on our staff who are simply volunteers. Head Coach Jeff Brown is one of the most respected and successful basketball coaches in the nation over the past decade. Having graduated 100% of his players in his 17 years of coaching at Middlebury, Coach Brown’s “pull” proves to be consistent with the College’s admissions standards.

Your second point left me nearly speechless. I would love to hear some elaboration on how we are “disproportionately valorized.” As active writers for the school newspaper, I would imagine you understand the implications of word choice and must have considered the weight of those two words before publishing the Op-Ed. So, please, I would love to hear some evidence in support of your claim as the rest of your piece does not seem to back it up.

The other half of your second point is about our tremendous time commitment. The only person who can say “you can reap these benefits without dedicating most of your time” is someone who has clearly never experienced something comparable. You are under an impression that games and practices are given priority over class as something beneficial for us. Quite the contrary. We have less time to put toward our studies and as a result we must work harder to achieve our academic goals. Given the time commitment you just can’t seem to wrap your head around, we have less time to study and may actually miss class which puts us at a massive disadvantage whether we have been given our professors’ blessing or not. Just because these professors are understanding doesn’t mean they are bending the rules on our behalf, but rather speaks to their compassion as humans. In other words, with or without approval, assignments are due on time and accommodations are rarely made. In my experience, the only accommodations that have been made for me as an athlete are because I am a hard-working, committed student dealing with a professor nice enough to hear me out. I believe such accommodations would have been extended to any non-athlete with a similar work ethic and conflict. There have been plenty of instances where I am dealing with teachers and people like the both of you who have no empathy for my situation, which is a type of adversity I must deal with in my pursuit of DIII athletics.

The point at which I picked up my pen and paper and began writing a response to your Op-Ed was when I read, “Some students start businesses, or volunteer or learn other valuable lessons that are honestly more applicable to the job market than the ability to chase a ball.” In your following sentences, you switch gears and begin to act like you are writing on our behalf, but that is not going to fool me. Anyone who sums up my now 16-year career playing basketball as time spent “chasing a ball” certainly doesn’t respect what we do or have any concern of our well-being as student-athletes. So, thanks for looking out for us. Thanks for begging for reform so that we can be freed from the shackles of playing the sport we love for just two hours a day…but no thanks. If your concern is discrepancies in funding, make your concern funding, but do not make efforts to ‘fix’ a situation you seem to know absolutely nothing about.

As for admissions, though this surely applies to every varsity team, I will speak about the team that I am a part of. My captain freshman year was a thousand point scorer, graduated with the most wins that a Middlebury player has ever had in the school’s history, had the highest GPA on the team and last, but certainly not least, was an un-recruited, walk-on to the team. There is a walk-on on our team currently, Liam Naughton, who happened to post a Facebook status with a link to your Op-Ed which first drew my attention. As for those recruited, they still have to exhibit academic proficiency to get into a school like Middlebury. Many of us are just as adorned—if not more—than many of our non-varsity classmates from an academic standpoint.

Our varsity sports at Middlebury are sanctioned by the NCAA. The NCAA characterizes DIII athletes as follows: “Participants are integrated on campus and treated like all other members of the student body, keeping them focused on being a student first.” If you feel as though your sport or club should be recognized by a national organization, then you should make an effort to get it recognized and accredited, and maybe that will help convince Middlebury to grant you the budgets I am sure you are in need of and deserve. Offer publicly held events that viewers can and will show up to for their own entertainment, get a team of voluntary Film and Media Culture majors to make an eight-part documentary on your program and its history, demonstrate success on a national platform six years in a row, offer community service as a group or team: I would imagine these are types of things that help draw attention to the programs and get them funding. Further, most of the funding you believe we get through Middlebury is actually provided through alumni donations, which are not a “cop-out” but rather the reality. Many of the enormous donations given to this school by alumni who played a sport during their time at Middlebury are used towards facilities completely open to the general student body.

Though the world beyond the walls of Middlebury may be different, I find that here is exactly the place where the kid who loves chemistry is certainly celebrated in the same way as the kid who loves hockey (I will disregard your use of hockey as it is Vermont’s favorite sport and attracts more local attention than all other varsity sports combined). In my opinion, you are misinformed about the “premium” we receive as athletes in both monetary aspects and elsewhere. You took a potentially interesting topic of debate—Middlebury’s allocation of financial resources or maybe a social dichotomy—as an opportunity to smear inaccurately and inconsiderately in black and white what sounds like your bitter distaste for sports. If only you had kept your concerns and comments to (what I hope was) the real focus of your Op-Ed, I would have gladly considered your position and possibly joined in support for all students’ benefit.

Jake Nidenberg ’16 is from Brooklyn, N.Y