Look Before You Leap

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. 

I am here to offer an alternative view and, hopefully, 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. I want to paint an accurate picture for the both of you and anyone else interested in what it feels like to be treated as “superiors” and to benefit from the funding you have so much to say about. 

Just as you mentioned in your Op-Ed, the divide between ‘NARPs’ and athletes is indeed apparent from day one at orientation. 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 true friends at all? 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. Clubs and groups offer the same opportunity to meet people. 

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. It takes a certain amount of exposure, talent, hard work, and luck, to get recruited over the vast sea of others so desperate to play in college. Middlebury has only so much money and can allocate it in only so many places if it wishes to have successful sports programs. Those who had an undying passion for, like you said, Fly Fishing or Crew or any other extracurricular 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. 

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. 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 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. 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 percent 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 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. We are faced with a massive disadvantage whether we have been given our professors’ blessing or not. Just because these professors understand doesn’t mean they bend the rules on our behalf; assignments are due on time and accommodations are rarely made. Any sort of accommodation I have experienced would have been extended to any non-athlete with a similar work ethic and conflict. 

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 proceeding sentences, you act as though you are acting on our behalf. 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: my captain freshman year was a thousand point scorer, graduated with the most wins that a Middlebury player has ever had, 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 which first drew my attention. As for those recruited, they still have to exhibit academic proficiency to get into a school like Middlebury. 

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 sanctioned and accredited, and maybe that will help convince Middlebury to grant you the budgets I am sure you are in need of and deserve. 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. And further, many of these enormous donations 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 celebrated in the same way as the kid who loves hockey. 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.

A version of this op-ed first appeared on middleburycampus.com on Jan. 24, 2015.