March Madness 2013: The Media Needs to Quit With the Ivy League "Nerd" Label

On Thursday night, Harvard upset New Mexico 68-62 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If it wasn’t for Florida Gulf Coast University hijacking the media with their astounding performances against Georgetown and San Diego State, Harvard may have been the darlings of March Madness.

Thankfully, FGCU and “Dunk City” stifled the Harvard hoopla with two tournament performances for the ages. I say thankfully, because I would not have been able to handle the “nerd” label thrown around when Ivy League athletes see success. Everyone knows these are good schools; we should do a better job of focusing on the athletic accomplishments of these teams rather than highlighting that these kids are smart and can win a basketball game.

The Associated Press report of Harvard’s win over New Mexico opened: “Give those Harvard kids an A-plus in another subject: bracketbusting 101.”

This is how the media works: An interesting tidbit is discovered and then harped on. When an Ivy League school succeeds, the format for writing an article about the team is easy: “[Insert Ivy League School Here]: Home To X presidential candidates, X Nobel Prize Winners, And Now, A Basketball Team.” The media should be diving deeper to find out what’s different about these athletes. That’s the exciting story, not that Harvard is a good school.

Harvard, meanwhile, may not be as different as other schools when it comes to being a great basketball school. Josh Levin at Slate, argues that Harvard is buying into major college sports.

While Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships, their financial aid package can rival scholarships (grants are offered to low-income students rather than loans). Harvard, who hired big name basketball coach Tommy Amaker in 2008, also attracts big name talent as well.

It is easy to highlight the Harvard band for it’s nerdiness, but there is nothing wrong with emphasizing Harvard’s basketball talent as well — this is their second straight year in the NCAA tournament, and anyone remember Jeremy Lin? 

2010 was the last time an Ivy League basketball team won a game in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Cornell won two games, beating Temple and Wisconsin to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

In the press conference after the Temple win, a reporter asked center Jeff Foote about Cornell’s academic requirements. Foote, who lost a bet earlier in the day, answered with a description of the ride to the game. Foote’s interest was more in team camaraderie than the story of academic requirements the reporter was interested in. (Foote did later admit to the bet and apologize to the reporter for not answering his question directly.)

The Cornell players did not dwell on the fact that they went to an Ivy League school. Instead, they dwelled on their team.

Maybe that’s why they made a tournament run.

In the moment, an Ivy League athlete doesn’t think about if he or she has a paper due tomorrow, they are thinking about the task at hand. Yes, the fact that these kids are held to the academic standards of the Ivy League is a fun wrinkle in a story, but these kids are like any other college athlete out there having the time of their lives competing. Regardless of whether they’re a “nerd.” 

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Liam Boylan-Pett

Liam is a culture writing intern at PolicyMic. His work has appeared in "Running Times" and other running publications. He is also a professional middle-distance runner for the New Jersey-New York Track Club. After graduating from Columbia University with his bachelor's degree, he earned a Master's of Professional Studies in Journalism from Georgetown University. Originally from Bath, Mich, he spends his time watching TV, reading longform journalism, and thinking about who is going to be in the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four.

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