Saturday, September 27, 2014
Review: Ivy League Athletes (2014)
After reading such books as "The System" (see below), it's easy to become a little discouraged about the state of athletics at our nation's universities. There certainly is a lot of cheating going on, and even the biggest supporters of college sports probably could be convinced that the competitors often should be called athlete-students instead of student athletes.
Well - Sal Maiorana to the rescue.
The Rochester sports writer is back with yet another book - he's practically a one-man industry as such things go - and this is one of his most interesting projects. It's called "Ivy League Athletes," which isn't exactly catchy but gets the point across about what the book is all about.
Maiorana spent much of the 2011-12 school year keeping up with nine different Ivy League athletes from seven different schools. (Princeton opted out, for no obvious reason.) He wanted to see what a season was like for them.
Maiorana chose his subjects wisely. Yes, they are mostly overachievers, decidedly on the brilliant and articulate side. Not only do they go through a full course load during the year, but they also play sports at a high level in their spare time - even if they don't have much spare time. Melanie Baskind of Harvard gets extra credit in that sense, because she played soccer in the fall and lacrosse in the spring.
What's more, the backgrounds of those followed are very different. Lucky Mkosana came all the way from Zimbabwe to play soccer at Dartmouth. Andy Iles came all the way from Ithaca, New York, to play hockey at Cornell. Greg Zebrack came from a typical Southern California family to play baseball at Penn; Sheila Dixon was adopted by a woman who already had 14 children after Dixon's drug-abusing mother put Sheila up for adoption. Some had hopes of playing professionally once they were done in college, but all of them wound up with a degree (or appeared to be headed toward one when the book was finished).
It's difficult to play high level sports and go to school at the same time, and many have to cut corners at other schools. There are no such corners at Harvard and Yale, but the players come across as interesting individuals because of the experience. It must have been odd for Maiorana to do interviews where so many of the answers were better than the questions.
The book comes with a couple of slight drawbacks, and I'm not sure they could have been easily fixed. First, there are plenty of descriptions of games and teams from a couple of years ago, and it's difficult to make some of those interesting even thought we certainly don't know how the story is going to come out. About the only exception to that is the experience of Harvard men's basketball; some might have a vague recollection of the outcome of that particular season.
Second, the book winds up in the summer of 2012. That's more than two years ago at the time of this reading. My guess is that it took some time for the book to find a publishing home (Northeastern University Press finally came through in that department). That extra year of narration could have changed the epilogue a bit, telling us whether certain athletes went on to success well after graduation.
It's difficult to complain too much about those issues, though. "Ivy League Athletes" shows that it doesn't take a national championship for athletes to become success stories, because there are plenty of good tales going on in other places. Those looking for some will find their fill here.
Read more about this book.
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