Starting a new job is never easy, but few have had it as tough as Erin McDermott. She took over as Harvard’s John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics on July 1, amid a pandemic that had already forced lockdowns and evacuations of businesses, schools, and universities and taken nearly 128,000 lives with no signs of abating.
Now, four months later, the fall and winter sports seasons have been canceled. Nevertheless, McDermott says, “The Crimson will be ready for what lies ahead of us, and we will represent Harvard with fortitude and excellence.”
McDermott said her athletic administrative experience at Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, as well as the time she spent playing basketball herself at Hofstra University (where she earned the school’s top scholar-athlete award) have informed her approach, one devoted to the student-athlete’s success in the classroom and on the court, or wherever they may practice and play. McDermott spoke with the Gazette about the role of sports in her life, about the importance of athletics at Harvard, and about her preparation for the months and years ahead.
GAZETTE: Can you describe the importance of sports in your own life?
McDERMOTT: I can’t say it’s been everything, but it’s pretty close. In terms of my personal development, it’s really where I found my confidence. The first memory I have of being athletic is going to a youth soccer tryout with my brother. He was probably 5; I was 3. I wasn’t old enough to play so I was just kicking the ball around. I was always a little tall for my age, making me look older, and one of the coaches said to my father: “Bring her back when she’s ready.” Getting that positive reinforcement, even though I was never a soccer player, was huge. Having an older brother, I was always trying to keep up with him, whether it was with Wiffle ball in the backyard or on the mountains learning to ski. And then I ventured into organized sports, and I got reinforcement from that. Thankfully, I had parents who completely encouraged me and didn’t think twice about it. I never heard the word “tomboy.” I didn’t know what that was until I was older. And it really led me down the path of playing different sports when I was young, continuing into high school.
GAZETTE: Did you plan to keep competing in college?
McDERMOTT: I thought I wanted to pursue sports in college, but I was also a very conscientious student, and I was very concerned about the time that it would take. But eventually I was recruited, and I landed at Hofstra University, where I played basketball. I had never really thought about getting into this type of work as a profession until my junior year, when I started observing all of this infrastructure around me and realized it was a complex operation. A woman was the associate athletic director. She’s still there, actually. She was always such a supporter for the women’s teams, always present, and always making you feel like somebody was in your corner. It was her presence that was so memorable, along with some decisions that Hofstra made about the whole experience for female athletes, which I felt weren’t quite on par with where they should have been. Also, about that time, I heard the woman who was the women’s athletic director at the University of Minnesota speak about Title IX. I was a Title IX baby, born the year it passed, so growing up those opportunities were just available to me — I didn’t really realize they were a right provided to us. That was the first time I really heard someone talk about the legal issues around athletics and gender equity, and it was really what started making me think about getting into this as a profession, because I thought there needed to be different people at the decision-making table for anything to really change.
So that’s what started leading me down this path. I really owe so much to my own experience with sports, and I am so grateful for it. It was so formative and shaped my opinions about how sports should look and feel and be for all student-athletes, regardless of the sport you played, your gender, your race, or your sexual orientation. So, I owe sports so much.
GAZETTE: How do you think your time working at Columbia and Princeton will help inform how you approach your role here at Harvard?
McDERMOTT: Given what I said about how I was a conscientious student, and also being very competitive, I think finding the Ivy League in my professional career — getting my first job at Columbia and then going from there to Princeton — really just felt like home for me. I’ve said this a few times, but coming to Harvard feels like a homecoming, both coming back to the Ivy League that I really feel is the perfect place for my ideology and philosophy, and coming back home to Massachusetts, since I’m from here.
I think the education-based philosophy of the Ivy League and the fact that those values and principles have not changed fundamentally over decades, and have stood the test of time, just spoke volumes to me when I started working at Columbia, where there truly was an emphasis on this balanced, student-athlete experience. I saw that that was going to be the primary focus around any decision that was made, and that’s how I try to view my job. Today, any decision that’s made is student-athlete-centric. With any decision we first ask the questions “How will this impact the student-athletes?” and “What do they want out of their Harvard experience?” I think if I were at a different school and I asked myself those questions, the answers might be different. But I think what I really appreciate about being at Harvard and having been at Princeton and Columbia is: The answer to that is they want us to honor their whole selves, and they want to thrive in everything that they do.
For a student-athlete, it’s also the ability to come to a place like Harvard and compete at the highest level in college athletics and to be able to fulfill the competitive aspect of themselves and the potential that they feel they might be able to achieve. We are here to support all of that, and I just so appreciate being in the Ivy League and being surrounded by this philosophy where it’s not just about athletic ability, and it’s not just about winning. We are thinking of this in a learning and growing and educational process kind of way. Education through athletics is something that I’m a true believer in.
GAZETTE: Can you say more about what education through athletics means to you?
McDERMOTT: To me, it boils down to the mentality that we are co-curricular from an educational standpoint; that we are complementary to the academic learning in the classroom and the growth that’s happening there; that we are the vehicle for more of the personal growth around coping and failure and resiliency and relationship-building and learning how to work with people whom you don’t always agree with, people with different backgrounds, as you drive toward this common goal and desired outcome. And I think student-athletes, because of that experience, are advantaged, because those are the kinds of skills and lessons and life learning that help them as they transition out of Harvard and go on to whatever it is they intend to pursue.
GAZETTE: The review of the Harvard Athletics Department by FAS released in June found that some student-athletes struggle to balance their academic and athletic commitments, and others can’t find enough time relax and unwind. What are your thoughts on those findings?
McDERMOTT: It’s certainly something I’ve heard and experienced pretty much everywhere I’ve been. The students at Princeton reminded me of the rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland,” so focused on time and worried about every minute, hurrying along to the next thing; they were just constantly needing time. It was similar at the University of Chicago. At Harvard, I haven’t experienced it firsthand because obviously we haven’t been in a normal, on-campus situation due to the coronavirus. But it did come out in the study, and in a way it is fresh information, even though it’s probably not a huge surprise to people who have been around this for a while. I think we’ll need to delve into it. I plan to meet with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and other student groups to try to drill into this. When you do that, you can identify where those real pressure points are and explore things that we can do to mitigate it. Sometimes, we find that it is just part of the normal college experience, that it is manageable but challenging and that students turn it into a positive because they really learn to juggle things and effectively manage their time.
But certainly, if there seem to be continual challenges around a student getting a decent dinner or enough sleep and we’re part of the problem, we need to really take a hard look at that and evaluate what we’re doing and if we can do it differently. I also think it’s key to bring coaches into these conversations, to get their input and talk through practice length. We will get more out of student-athletes if we’re respectful of their time and try to do as much as we can with the least amount of time possible. I think it’s important for us to be continually asking ourselves if we can identify where there might be areas we can look to for solutions, but it takes partnership with others on campus too.
GAZETTE: You mentioned partnerships. Another finding in the report was a desire for more collaboration between FAS and athletics. How are you going to approach that kind of work?
McDERMOTT: That’s something we’ve actually been thinking about quite a bit. This idea of integration definitely came across loud and clear in the study, and it was something that we discussed throughout my hiring process. I think this year gives us an interesting space to work on that. I’ve been talking with a lot of people on campus and asking them where there are points of connectivity that I can take advantage of with faculty, with deans, to start building relationships and credibility. That’s not to suggest that there hadn’t been work done in that area before. We have a faculty standing committee. But I want to find the places we can tell our story in a very consistent and compelling way so that we can kind of fill this gap of knowledge and information, because if we don’t, then people kind of fill in that story for us.
And again, this is nothing different from what I have experienced in other places. But often there tends to be a judgment made in certain moments that we must be bringing people here who are more focused on their sport than they are on academics. We want to make it clear that we have these amazing student-athletes who work very hard and who go on to be great ambassadors and citizen-leaders. I think sometimes there’s also a judgment that our coaches only care about bringing in really great athletes, that they are only concerned about winning. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think as much as we use this hyphenated word student-athlete, we can just as easily use educator-coach, because every coach on our staff thinks of themselves first and foremost as an educator. That’s why they’re here. With every student-athlete, the coaches are concerned about personal and character development and making sure that they’re part of that growing and learning process with them.
GAZETTE: I think many people think Harvard athletics just involves the NCAA teams. But there is much more to it, including club sports, House competitions, and the classes and athletic facilities that are open to all students and staff.
McDERMOTT: We’ve also thought a lot about how to provide more for other students on campus so they feel like there is this athletics experience that they can be part of too. That was a driver behind the Grow Play Achieve (GPA) program we started this year, a series of online, physical activity, personal development, and community-building activities that connected students with Harvard coaches. I think as much as we can be providing those opportunities for other students at Harvard the better, and making this about a Crimson community on campus.
We already have this really robust recreational program, and I think it’s just making sure that all those opportunities are well-promoted, and everyone knows what their options are. Typically, these are students who are well aware of wellness issues and of the long-term health benefits of being active. With all of our recreational offerings and classes around fitness we are trying to really stay on the cutting edge, but we also recognize that we probably need more space. We’d like to do a space study as part of a facility plan for the future. And I will include recreation in that because I think we need to have sufficient space on campus to accommodate the demands and needs of our students and make sure that they have really great and inviting recreational spaces.
GAZETTE: Was there anything else in the report that surprised you or that you found particularly striking?
McDERMOTT: It’s not a surprise to any of us who have been in it, but what struck me was how strongly it came out that student-athletes really value their relationships with their coaches. It confirmed exactly what I said about how our coaches view themselves as educators first and are truly mentors. Coaches who coach at a place like Harvard are doing this because they are educators, and they truly believe in that model. If it was just about wanting to be as competitive as possible or making the most money, they wouldn’t be here. So that was really affirming to see. And I think it’s powerful for people on campus to see that, those who haven’t had this experience and maybe don’t have that natural connection with what a coaching relationship can become. And to see that come out so strongly, across so many different sports, was so encouraging and signaled that we clearly have a really great coaching staff, and that the coaches are really treasured by their student-athletes.
Other than that, the academic integration was something we definitely want to work on, but generally, it felt like the culture was very positive. The study has been a great resource to have walking into this new role.
GAZETTE: What has it been like stepping into this position during a pandemic?
McDERMOTT: I’d say that the hardest part has just been not having really the physical presence with people. We started dealing directly with COVID-19 closures when I was still at Chicago, transitioning to working from home and connecting on Zoom with people I’ve worked with for seven years. But coming into this situation I didn’t have that foundation, and the work has been all virtual.
It’s also been really challenging because I’ve had to deliver really disappointing news virtually. It was only a week after I started that I had to tell everybody we weren’t having any fall competition. That was with our full department and student-athletes in a webinar format, but it felt impersonal. It felt the same way when I recently had to let people know that the Ivy League presidents have chosen to cancel the winter sports season and that the spring season will be on hold until the end of February. Still, I thought it was really important that they hear that from me.
In terms of work, it’s really hard when you don’t have those casual or informal connections. I can’t walk down the hallway and just bump into people. I can’t walk into spaces where a lot of staff or students typically would be congregating. Everything has to be planned and intentional. So that’s probably been the most challenging part, just trying to establish the kinds of credibility and trust and relationships that you need as a leader. I am not quite sure when we’re going to be back in person. But we will manage this way, for now.
GAZETTE: Currently, is there any athletic activity happening on campus or any facilities open for students?
McDERMOTT: We’re really proud that our spaces were the first spaces open to students on campus, aside from houses and grabbing food at the dining halls. I think it was the beginning of October when we started opening. We opened the MAC for in-residence students and staff. It’s highly regulated, with only a certain number of people allowed in, and everyone needs to wear masks. We’ve worked with Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety on safety standards around airflow for different spaces, and how many people could occupy spaces, so it was very well planned out.
On the same day, we started in-person athletic activity for the student athletes who were on campus, limited to strength conditioning work, which was in line with the Ivy League phasing plan. The first, in-person phase of that plan was limited to strength conditioning to help get students accustomed to wearing masks and being 6 feet apart from each other and being in small groups. The idea was that if people were successfully able to comply with that and were healthy, we would continue to phase two, which is sport-related activity along with strength conditioning. They were still in small groups of no more than 10, and they were still 6 feet apart. We thought the students might find it boring, but they were so ecstatic to be around their teammates and to be able to do something again. So, it’s really been kind of a bright spot.
GAZETTE: Can you tell me what will happen to the eligibility for a student who has been away from campus due to COVID?
McDERMOTT: We refer to it as a clock in Division I. They have five years to use their four seasons of eligibility, which starts the day that they matriculate. So, for those enrolled, whether remote or living on campus, they haven’t lost a season because we only practiced, but they have a finite window of time to use that year. For those who have taken a leave completely, it’s the same. They are not using a season, but their clock doesn’t stop either.
GAZETTE: Is there anything else you would like to add?
McDERMOTT: Obviously, this is a really unusual and challenging time for different reasons for different people. But I have not lost my gratitude or excitement about being part of the Harvard community and having this opportunity, and I’m very excited for our future. I know this is temporary, even though it’s lasting longer than any of us would like. But we’ll get beyond it. And I know that the Crimson will be ready for what lies ahead of us and we will represent Harvard with fortitude and excellence.
Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.