Pride in athletics, University
As a Rutgers supporter and spouse of an alumna, I have read with interest the series of opinions that have followed the Rutgers Men's Basketball team's appearance in the National Invitation Tournament final basketball game on April 1. The initial piece, "The Real Rutgers," followed an article in a local newspaper. Following was a response, and now a response to the response. In each of these pieces, there has been, to varying degrees, a portrayal of the incompatibility of academic prowess with athletic success. This is a longstanding debate, not only at Rutgers but at many institutions of learning: What takes precedence - the academic achievement of the sporting success at the highest level? Recruiting and academic scandals in various places throughout the nation have reinforced the belief that the two are incompatible. The simple fact, however, is that it isn't true.
In the last 10 years, both Stanford and Northwestern Universities have participated in the Rose Bowl game, perhaps the most prestigious college football game in existence. Both schools are known for academic excellence, and certainly neither school can be called a "sports factory." Duke University has been the presiding program in men's college basketball for 10 years or so now. Its fans, the "Cameron Crazies," are known to be some of the loudest, most boisterous, and - some would say - most obnoxious in the game. None of that has tarnished Duke's reputation as one of the best academic universities in the country.
So, the idea that athletic success by Rutgers' teams, be it football, basketball for men or women or any other sport, such as soccer and lacrosse, cannot be achieved while maintaining high academic excellence simply is without foundation. There is no reason that Rutgers cannot achieve both.
The author of the first piece unfortunately chose to single out a remark by a fellow student, who said after the NIT final game, "For the first time, I feel like I'm at a real university." The author took this to mean that only the athletic success and associated fan behavior validated his fellow student's feelings toward the university. While I cannot speak for the original student, I believe he was referring to something else that was apparent at Madison Square Garden: pride.
My wife and I attended both games at the Madison Square Garden, and simply walking up the street from the PATH station, I saw a larger collection of Rutgers clothing, hats, shirts and jackets than I have ever seen before. We stopped at a nearby restaurant for dinner before the final game, and it was filled with Rutgers fans discussing the coming game. Never before have I seen that many people proud to be associated with New Jersey's state university. Their clothing didn't say "Rutgers Basketball," it said, "Rutgers University." Mostly when walking around in various scarlet clothing, I find myself defending the school to various people who notice me, but not this night.
Why was this pride, which is usually lacking from the state's citizens, on display that night? Because the men's basketball team had gotten to a position where it would be noticed by the whole country. This is the effect that athletic success has. It motivates community pride. The Rutgers community was out in force that night, proud to have their shared identity.
While academic excellence is, without doubt, the greater achievement, it is very much an individual accomplishment. It doesn't generate the same sense of community athletics does. A researcher at a University who makes a great discovery will be remembered; the university may be or may not be. A student who works hard through college and makes the dean's list or graduates Magna Cum Laude will be applauded by his or her efforts, and rightly so. But that is not something the rest of the university, or the state that supports it, can join in. It belongs to that student alone.
For a school and a state that usually have so little pride in themselves, it was wonderful to see such community pride that night in and around the world's most famous arena. No matter how it was generated, it was on display. That athletic success brought people together in a way I don't believe academics can. I hope that it will carry over throughout the university and the state.
As for Professor Dowling's plan of non-scholarship athletics to the goal of academic elitism, I regret to inform him that New Jersey already has such as school. It's located about half an hour south of Rutgers down Route 1. Incidentally, their fans get pretty rowdy at basketball games too.
Dan McDevitt is a supporter of Rutgers.