April 20, 2005

The Other Student-Athletes

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The field lies empty as the sun rises on a Spring morning. As 1 p.m. approaches, droves of people appear in the distance. Soon, the once quiet field is alive with the sounds of softball, as teams begin to warm up for the upcoming games. With the blast of a horn, play begins. It is Sunday afternoon, and the intramural softball season is underway.

Cornell’s intramural sports program, which has been around since the early 1900s, offers students the chance to compete against each other in some of their favorite sports throughout the school year. Intramural sports not only provide great exercise, but they can also help students blow off steam after a bad prelim grade. According to a study conducted by Professor David Kanters of North Carolina State University, participating in campus recreational sports can help college students lower stress-related anxiety.

Intramural records indicate that the All-Around Intramural Championship Trophy was first awarded during the 1927-28 academic year to Delta Chi, but recreational sports have had a presence on the Cornell campus since as early as 1904. Cornell’s third president, Jacob G. Schurman, wanted to give non-varsity athletes the chance to participate in a variety of sports under the direction of the varsity coaches.

Nicholas Bawlf, who coached the men’s ice hockey team from 1920-1947, was the first known director of intramurals, holding that position from 1937-1947. Before the advent of a full-time director, students were the ones responsible for organizing the intramural competition, and still play an important administrative role in the current program.

After being male-only for its first 70-odd years of existence, the intramural program at Cornell began offering competition for women during the 1974-75 academic year. Sigma Delta Tau and Alpha Phi were the first sororities at Cornell to organize teams in the women’s division.

When the program changed its rules to allow men to compete on a single-sex team and a co-ed team, the number of co-ed teams competing increased dramatically. Rules were modified to encourage the utilization of women during the co-ed games. In co-ed basketball, a normal two-point shot is worth three points if a woman makes it, and a normal three-point shot is worth four points.

Dave Pearson is entering his second year as the Robert D. Kennedy ’54 Director of Intramurals at Cornell, estimates a student participation level of 6,500 to 6,800 during the 2003-04 school year. Pearson, whose position is the only endowed one of its kind in the country, came to Cornell after working at Washington State and the University of Nebraska, where students take intramural sports very seriously.

“There was one particular individual at Nebraska who was on his ninth or 10th year as an undergrad. He had a degree, but he would sign up for one credit a semester so he could continue to play intramurals,” Pearson said.

Pearson and new assistant director Betsy Johnson oversee the program, which offers over 30 different sports and events. Students are also involved in the day-to-day functions, as supervisors and referees. Seven senior supervisors and 13 student supervisors are responsible for overseeing the 150 officials during the games and solving any problems that may arise.

“We always tell the students that work for us that it’s their program and we’re just there to facilitate it,” said Andrea Dutcher, who served as the director of intramruals from 1988-1996.

Jill Mikolayczyk ’05 has been working in the intramural program since her freshmen year. After serving as a referee and scorekeeper in volleyball, basketball and floor hockey, she became a student supervisor her sophomore year and is currently a senior supervisor.

“Trying to keep everything on schedule and running smoothly and having enough officials on each field, that’s probably one of the hardest things that I have to do,” she said. “You have to take into consideration the ability of your referee and the level of the game they’re going to be refereeing. You don’t want to put a referee who’s only had two games under his or her belt in a very intense fraternity game.”

Running an intramural program the size of Cornell’s takes a large organizational effort. While a software program takes care of scheduling games for the different sports, assigning referees to individual games is trickier, as there are not always a sufficient number of referees available. Being an official can be stressful at times, as some Cornell students are very competitive during intramural sports.

“They want intramurals to be, I think, as competitive as some varsity sports,” Mikolayczyk said. “They see all these great referees on television and expect students that are just like them to be top-notch. Our officials are very good. A lot of them come in with no sports knowledge whatsoever, and I think that by the end of the year, their improvement is amazing.”

One of the factors that must be considered when running an intramural program is risk management. The staff must ensure that the participating students are safe during the games. For sports like ice hockey, this means strict equipment requirements for all players and the use of non-contact rules. Riskier sports that were once offered by the intramural program at Cornell, such as fencing and box lacrosse, have been discontinued.

At the University of Notre Dame, the only school in the country to offer tackle football (most schools offer flag football as an intramural sport), extra safety considerations are extremely important. Equipment must be in excellent shape, interested players must sign a waiver form, and there are EMTs at every game. Despite the hazard involved, tackle football has a high participation level.

“This program is by far our most popular men’s intramural sport,” said Rich O’Leary, the director of intramurals at Notre Dame. “We do not have fraternities or sororities, so the dorm competition is quite intense. Dorms hold barbecues before or after the games, and some halls provide half-time entertainment. The championship game is played in Notre Dame Stadium.”

Intramural athletes at Cornell also compete in the varsity facilities. The entire intramural ice hockey season is played in Lynah Rink, and the championships for flag football and basketball are played in Schoellkopf Field and Newman Arena, respectively. Basketball was an extremely popular sport last year, as a maximum of 160 teams registered to play across all divisions.

“I talk to the old intramural director about once a month, and when I called him and told him how many basketball teams we had, he just said, ‘Holy cow!'” Pearson said. “He moved on to the University of Maryland, which is a basketball school, and we had more intramural teams than they did.”

While intramurals provide great athletic competition for non-varsity athletes, every student hopes to one day win an intramural championship and the trophy that comes with it — a T-shirt. Dutcher recalls one student who, having never won an intramural championship T-shirt as a student, purchased two intramural championship T-shirts at the Quill and Dagger Charity auction for $48. For those students at Cornell who have yet to win, another opportunity is just around the corner, whether it be in softball, indoor soccer, or dodgeball.

Jonathan Auerbach is a Sun Staff Writer. I Never Kid will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Jonathan Auerbach