The coining of “Stanford duck syndrome” is probably one of the worst things that has happened to Stanford in recent years. As an incoming freshman, it’s still fairly likely that you have heard of this term. And no, it has nothing to do with Oregon Ducks football—especially not after Stanford derailed Oregon’s national championship hopes last year.
For the uninitiated, Stanford duck syndrome is a term that describes students’ obsession with seeming at ease despite various sorts of inner desperations. A duck, after all, appears to glide smoothly on the surface of the water while its legs paddle furiously below. Somehow, Stanford students have managed to view something that is quite typical around the globe as a disease unique to our own university. I assure you that it is not. There are a lot of things that make Stanford special, but the desire to seem cool is not one of them.
One of the things that does make Stanford special is its athletics program. (I am a sports columnist—why wouldn’t I say that?) Its success is unparalleled. Champions play in Palo Alto. Stanford has the nation’s longest active streak of national championships, attempts to field an elite team in every sport it supports and has a stranglehold on the annual prize for America’s best athletic program, the Director’s Cup. Stanford’s success is not to be taken for granted, but at times it does seem like a fact of life.
Now, you could ask what relevance sports have to Stanford’s educational mission—and that would be an excellent question indeed. The athletics program does not release statistics on its financial impact to the University. Many schools support athletics programs as a subtle form of advertising, but it’s not as if we need the publicity. Anybody who has seen the tourist mobs around here knows that I speak the truth.
But for both players and fans, sports are invaluable to the Stanford community for a very simple reason: They give us a chance to relax and forget about who we are.
It is one of the ironies of life on the Farm that, in a place where academic excellence is prized and celebrated, we nevertheless glorify success that is achieved without hard work. At some point in time, we were all the cocky classroom virtuosos who aced the test without studying, glided between defensemen on the hockey rink or sight-read sonatas on the piano. I can imagine that coming into Stanford, many of you will be hoping that such a lifestyle will continue. I can also reassure you that at Stanford, it is at least possible to appear as if nothing has changed—to act as though success comes effortlessly to you, even when it doesn’t.
On a certain level, that’s a good thing. Effortless perfection is what will forever be expected of us, so we might as well practice it here.
But duck syndrome is not healthy. It’s just not. Which is why we have sports.
The Stanford University Athletics Department is in the business of catharsis. On the court or the field or the pool or the sidelines or the stands, we find opportunities for excitement and terror, sorrow and joy and some socially acceptable release from emotionless vanity. People would be shocked and disappointed if somebody screamed in triumph after passing their organic chemistry midterm, but cheering and celebration are acceptable on the football field.
If we feel a need to cry, we run to our rooms to do it; similarly and paradoxically, it is where we are most tightly gathered that we afford ourselves the chance to smile. There are very few occasions where there are more students in one place than at a football game; bringing our far-flung community together gives us the chance to find some release. Everybody gets to smile and cry together in a socially acceptable manner. Sports make Stanford a better place; that’s why schools that de-emphasized football, like the Ivy League schools or the University of Chicago, didn’t scrap athletics altogether.
But—and this is one of the main knocks people tend to have against athletics—sports have a tendency to distort the world as well. Any escape from reality threatens to throw our priorities askew. Even if you get up at 6 a.m. every day to work out before school started, your sport is still a game.
Very few people are capable of turning their love into a profession. Even on Stanford’s heralded football team, fewer than half of the players will make an NFL practice squad; three or four players a year will carve out a lasting career. Indeed, the unpredictability of a sporting career is Stanford’s greatest selling point—why pass up the chance to get a great education? The degree comes first. The degree always comes first. Many people here would have done nearly anything to get into Stanford, and it always perplexes me how a recruit could ever turn it down.
Perhaps that is why it is acceptable to show emotions at a game—because in the end, it doesn’t truly matter. Your marriage matters. Your children matter. Your job and your degree and your life choices matter. Unless you are a professional athlete, sports aren’t that important. So while fans and players can take the opportunity to smile and to care, both should try to keep things in perspective.
Part of what made Stanford so attractive to me was the chance to enjoy a top-tier athletics program, but I would never have considered the university if it hadn’t been one of the crown jewels of higher education—not just in the United States but in the entire world. I think both athletes and fans would agree on that point. Nevertheless, while sports at Stanford are not the “real Stanford,” they are part of what makes the real Stanford livable. As you begin your college careers, I strongly urge you to keep that in mind.
Winston Shi is hoping he is one of the few in his grade to carve out a successful NFL career. To tell him why he has a better chance than his freshman roommate, Andrus Peat, email Winston at email@example.com.