Magazine Preview: Down for the Count
Written by Bwog Staff
The Mapril issue of The Blue and White has finally come back from the printer. Look for its handsome cover in strategic locations around campus over the next two days. In today’s preview, Sam Schube finds out what happens when Columbia athletes throw in the towel.
In the world of Columbia athletics, your word is your bond. Since the Ivy conference forbids athletic scholarships in the name of academic integrity, students are not bound by the typical Division I bargain that guarantees tuition, room, and board in exchange for performance. This opens up a curious loophole: Ivy Leaguers are free to quit at any time, and members quit with surprising regularity. On the wrestling team, which has a particularly high rate of attrition, one team member estimated that up to 15 wrestlers have quit in the last three years.
“Around Christmas, team morale just goes down the shitter,” says former wrestler Mike Pushpak, CC ’11. Athletes are forced to sacrifice Christmas dinners and long January vacations to practice, an expectation that drains team morale during the height of the season. Rather than relax their expectations, the coaches have instituted a new “100 percent or zero percent” policy in response to low energy: if wrestlers aren’t willing to walk the tightrope that is Ivy League wrestling—and succeed at it—they are quickly removed from the team roster.
Part of giving 100 percent means maintaining what the team’s coaches call a “robust” academic schedule. The wrestling team admits recruits using “the Index,” a formula amalgamating a recruit’s various academic measures such as class rank, GPA, and, most importantly, SAT scores, to meet University requirements. “We have a kid who just broke 1,000,” says one wrestler who wished to remain anonymous, necessitating the odd 2300-scoring recruit who can “carry” the team’s SAT average. While the low-scorers can certainly give the required 100 percent on the mat, they tend to be left behind in the classroom, making the athletics-academics balance that much harder to maintain.
Certain players make it their duty to keep members from falling off the tightrope. A major part of this effort is the systematic identification of flagging members. “On a team where quitting is a problem, these kids continue the problem,” says another wrestler.
Once struggling wrestlers do fall off the tightrope, they essentially become untouchables. Some are seen as a threat to the remaining team–with more free time to spend sleeping and drinking, they can easily tempt away active players, especially roommates and suitemates. “When you live with someone who quit you are also affected,” says the same anonymous wrestler. “They are seen as potentially poisonous. I like to call them ‘Team Cancer.'” This wrestler once lived with one of these “poisonous” outsiders who, without the regimen of practice and training, soon become “a shining beacon of alcoholism.” Former wrestlers are soon alienated from a number of team traditions, “Wife-Beater Fridays” chief among them. “We beat down the doors where we lift and wear wife-beaters,” another wrestler explained when asked about the team’s ritual. “On Fridays only, though.”
In other sports, the snubbing is less overt but just as potent. “It’s not like you’re ostracized, but it’s almost like you’re de facto ostracized,” said Greg Kremler, CC ’10, a former member of the track and cross-country teams, “because you’re not living that lifestyle anymore.” Runners often juggle three early morning lift sessions a week, a full course-load, and four hours of practice five or six days a week. It’s no wonder that so much of their world centers on the team.
Burning out isn’t always self-generated, though, since injuries also can force an athlete off the team. Mike Pushpak tore the meniscus in his right knee during his sophomore year. That same year, his kneecap on the same knee continued to pop in and out. He suffered, in addition to his bum knee, a concussion—his second in two years—and was out for a month with debilitating headaches, which often set in as he walked up flights of stairs. Thanks to many hours spent on the mat, he developed a facial skin infection and back spasms, not to mention a mild case of cauliflower ear. But that’s just cosmetic.
With so many injuries sustained, “there was no guarantee I’d make it through a full year,” he says. Even more seriously, “30 years from now I might not be able to walk properly or throw a ball properly,” he reflects. These worries, among others, compelled Pushpak to quit—or, as he puts it, to “resign. Quitting’s such a harsh word, you know?”
Injured players face two unappealing options: sit injured on the bench and off of the coach’s radar, or get back in the game before they’re ready. After former track runner Michael Kelley-Bradford, CC ’11, was injured at the end of his sophomore year, his coach quickly lost interest in his plight. As he puts it, “I definitely wasn’t living up to expectations—theirs or mine.” Neglected, Kelley-Bradford quickly cut ties with the team.
Walk-ons complicate the equation further. Since Columbia Athletics encourages academically strong athletes to apply without admissions help, the program lends itself to walk-ons who can easily replace recruits on the mend. When injured, Pushpak often worried that these walk-ons would take his spot. “In high school, the coach can’t afford to replace people,” he says. At Columbia, “there’s usually a backup around who can do the job.” These fears create an unhealthy incentive to push injured athletes their physical limits, often worsening the injury in the process.
In the end, what may sustain many athletes more than the quest for victory is their sense of identity. Rather than be “just another student,” these students thrive on their Sisyphean struggle to both study and score, almost simultaneously. “We might not be the smartest,” Pushpak observes, but “we pride ourselves on being able to juggle what everyone else is doing along with athletics.”
Illustrations by Liz Lee