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The Athletic Advantage

Opinion | October 1, 2012

Until the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center opened its doors this fall, the athletic and fitness facilities here at Tufts bordered on embarrassing. I don’t mean to suggest that the mildew-y scent in the windowless weight room wasn’t charming in its own way, and one could argue that the locker room and training facilities of the past served—if nothing else—to keep our athletes humble. Whatever redeeming qualities we could have found in our previous facilities, it is clear upon entering the Kraft Family atrium that the Jumbos are not in the proverbial Kansas of overcrowded, underequipped, and dated facilities anymore.

While there have certainly been some complaints about the new facilities, it is important to remember that this project is just the beginning of a massive improvement upon what came before it. The university has plans to continue investing in its athletic facilities and athletic programs. Our athletic programs have had great success in recent years, despite subpar facilities and generally low turnout at home games. This success has revealed the possibility of what could occur in the future if more attention and funding were devoted to Jumbo athletics.

The fact that the university has demonstrated a commitment to supporting its athletic programs financially is encouraging for both the continued success of our teams and for Tufts’ continued development as an internationally renowned institution. As a Division III school, Tufts need not aspire to generate millions in revenues from its athletics programs, nor should it expect its football games to be attended by thousands of crazed fans on gameday. What Tufts can do, however, is use athletics and school spirit as an effective tool to inspire a feeling of attachment and belonging in young Jumbos during their four years on the hill. School spirit fosters attachment; attachment promotes involvement; and involvement yields donations. This is a formula that works – one that has been proven to work at schools of all sizes.

Consider the Ivy League, for example. It is the athletic conference after which the NESCAC was modeled. It is safe to say that no Ivy League school allows academics to fall by the wayside in promotion of athletics, and few usually expect the Ivies to field teams that compete viably for national championships in big-time sports like football or basketball. At the same time, athletics play a major role in campus life at many Ivy League schools. Athletic contests are social events, and students are proud to support their peers who not only excel in the classroom, but also devote their time and bodies to excelling on their respective fields of play. Historic rivalries like Harvard-Yale and Princeton-Penn draw students, alumni, and families in droves, and have been recognized by ESPN and Sports Illustrated as some of the most important sporting rivalries in the United States. This is all despite the fact that you will be more likely to find many of these student-athletes on Wall Street or attending elite medical schools than to see them play professionally.

The Ivies are by no means the only example of top-rate athletics complimenting top-rate academics. Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Stanford all immediately come to mind as private universities that not only field premier athletic teams at the Division I level, but also rank ahead of Tufts University in terms of academic, or overall university rankings. Hitting much closer to home, we can look to schools like Williams and Amherst, competitors at the Division III level, and members of the NESCAC. The Williams-Amherst football game, too, figures among one of the fiercest and most historic collegiate rivalries. Despite the remote location of both schools, this game is incredibly well attended by alumni and broadcast on ESPN. It serves as a point of inspiration for all NESCAC athletic programs, and a confirmation that Division III games can be just as momentous as their primetime Division I counterparts.

Though Tufts University defines itself based on its first-rate academics, it is increasingly clear that premier academics and athletics-driven school spirit are by no means mutually exclusive. Moreover, the advent of two school spirit-focused initiatives—Fan the Fire and Jumbo Stampede—in the past year shows that there is demand among the student body for increased school spirit driven by athletics. But as the university continues to promote our athletic programs via school spirit initiatives to foster some much needed support for our student-athletes, it is important for students to understand that fostering school spirit in this manner requires the help of the student body. So instead of lamenting the lack of school spirit at Tufts, or the fact that “nobody ever goes to the games,” be proactive. Get some friends, go to the game, and cheer for the defender you know from your Bio class or the attackman you’ve seen in Econ. They’re out there because they love this school as much as you do, and because it is an honor to wear Brown and Blue to represent our great university. And who knows, maybe future Jumbos will reap the benefits of this support, in the form of newly donated facilities, an increased endowment, or most importantly, a more dynamic Tufts experience.