By Drew Love
The two-time national champion McGill Martlet hockey team exemplifies all that is worthwhile about varsity sport. Their win jives with McGill’s reputation for excellence and the sense of pride that comes with raising a championship banner is shared university-wide. Add to the celebration that almost half of the women’s team boasts a GPA of 3.4 or higher and you can forget about suggesting that success on the playing field comes at the expense of success in the classroom.
It’s easy to question the role of sport in a university that garners most of its reputation in the world of academia. But within such an institution there should always be a place for varsity athletics. Wearing McGill colours and cheering for the home team is an experience enjoyed by students since the early days of the University. It was and remains a stalwart of university life. It’s also an experience that is repeated annually by alumni who never grow too old to cheer for their alma mater.
It’s that kind of loyalty to an institution that athletics fosters, a loyalty that arguably exceeds that made through academics alone.
“Most of the connections I have with McGill are through sport,” said Gayle Noble a former Martlet soccer player who currently practises law in Montreal. “I did three degrees (BA followed by an MA in Political Science and LLB) but my connections aren’t with my faculties, but with the Athletics department.”
Varsity athletes also have a knack for getting good press. McGill teams and athletes were featured in local and national papers no fewer than 45 times during the 2008-9 competitive season (an additional 28 articles featured McGill grads). Not included in this count are the numerous community papers across the country that celebrate the success of their local athletes who also happen to be McGill students.
This kind of publicity costs nothing and serves to generate interest in the University and foster our reputation as an academic institution that values both the mind and the body. It attracts not only the best and the brightest, but also the most athletically inclined, creating a dynamic cross-section of students that build diversity on campus.
The positive link between an active lifestyle and good grades has been firmly established. It is also clearly demonstrated by the 136 McGill athletes who qualified as Academic All-Canadians, a distinction earned by athletes in CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports)-sanctioned sports who maintained a sessional GPA of 3.4 or higher, which ranked us second in the country. It’s this unique mix of academic and athletic excellence that proves attractive to potential students and their parents.
Beyond the benefits athletics brings to the university however, is the benefit it brings to the student athlete. The so-called soft skills learned through sport have implications both socially and professionally. Successful executives report that their experiences in competitive sport helped them function better on a team, develop important leadership skills, learn to make independent decisions and better cope with failure.
Socially, the team experience creates friendships that start on day one and last a lifetime. Student athletes arrive on campus and find a team of like-minded individuals with whom they form an immediate connection. These friendships not only manifest themselves positively on the playing field, their longevity and cohesiveness can lead to a collective good. A prime example is the legacy left by the McGill football and hockey teams of 1938-9 whose ongoing commitment to financial aid for academically-gifted athletes has helped 50 or more students since its inception in 1991.
But perhaps the greatest gift varsity athletics brings to a university is the excitement it breeds on campus. Nothing builds communal spirit better than a team on a roll. We have had many winning teams in the past and continue this successful tradition today. Our two-time national champions the McGill Martlets hockey team and swimmer Steven Bielby, a freshman who earned three individual gold medals at the national championships, led the charge this year. Next year will bring a whole new scope of possibilities as we continue to pursue success on the playing field, in the gym, pool, arena and on the track. That relentless drive for excellence is reflective of McGill’s values and our athletes the embodiment of the university’s mission.
Drew Love is McGill’s Executive Director of Athletics and Recreation.