It is easy to be impressed with what she did on the lacrosse field, but Catherine Sharkey was even more talented in the classroom, earning a Rhodes Scholarship and becoming an Ivy League law professor.
Catherine Sharkey compiled an outstanding athletic record as goalie for the Yale lacrosse team. She played on a two-time Ivy championship team, was twice winner of the Bowditch award (given to the team's Most Valuable Player), became team captain in 1992, and was a finalist for the prestigious NCAA Woman of the Year award. But it was a New York Times article appearing shortly after Sharkey's graduation that foretold her future career.
"How smart are Ivy League athletes? If grade-point averages are a fair evaluation then the smartest this last academic year was Cathy Sharkey," asserted the Times, noting that she had a 3.90 grade point average and had just won a Rhodes scholarship. Cathy Sharkey was a great Ivy League athlete, but she also was and is a first-rate scholar.
Sharkey became interested in Yale through visiting her older brother and sister, Edward and Siobhan, who both were students there. "Yale had a certain mystique" notes Sharkey, and "I learned I had a good shot at playing varsity early on." That made her decision to attend Yale easy.
It was the quality of the undergraduate teaching that impressed her most freshman year. "Yale has these really illustrious people wanting to teach undergraduates. I had William Nordhaus (co-author of the classic Paul Samuelson Economics textbook) for my first class, followed by James Tobin (winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Economics). I became enormously excited about economics."
Sharkey also conducted original research while an undergraduate. "I came into Yale with a lot of AP (Advanced Placement) credit," says Sharkey, "so I took the first semester senior year off and studied the bail system in New Haven." Her study was based on data she collected from bail commission records and interviews with bail bondsmen. It tested empirically the claim that the private sector (bail bondsmen) operates to mitigate discrimination in the public sphere -- in this case, mitigating higher bails that courts may set for male black and Hispanic detainees. This paper formed the basis for her senior thesis, which won Yale's prize for the best original economics thesis, and was developed further by Professors Ian Ayres and Joel Waldfogel in "A Market Test for Race Discrimination in Bail Setting" [46 Stanford Law Review 987 (1994)].
Yale let Sharkey "pursue academics at the highest level," while playing lacrosse, though it required "bringing a lot of books to games." Yale's residential college system, in which undergraduates after the freshman year live, eat and conduct extra-curricular activities in small (300-400 people), self-contained residential units, played an important role in bringing about her athletic-academic balance. "I was exposed to people who pursued music, theatre, at a very high level. It balanced my association with other athletes, and was enormously enriching," she says.
Her lacrosse experience certainly played a role in Sharkey's winning a Rhodes Scholarship. Cecil Rhode's criteria for the scholarships include "energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports." Sharkey believes the Rhodes committee was looking for candidates "excelling in something," and that playing lacrosse "fed into leadership, excelling, athleticism."
Taking a Master's degree in economics from Oxford, Sharkey went on to Yale Law School, where she was Executive Editor of the Yale Law Journal. After earning her J.D. she went on to clerk for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, then clerked for Justice David Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sharkey is now an Associate Professor of Law at Columbia. She teaches torts, and one area of interest is punitive damages. "What are the purposes of punitive damages? How should we structure them?" Sharkey reconceives a component of punitive damages as "societal compensatory damages" - awarded for the redress of harms caused by defendants who injure persons beyond the individual plaintiffs in a particular case. Her reform proposal is a variation of existing "split recovery schemes," where a portion of punitive damages in an individual plaintiff's case is apportioned to the state or a court-administered fund.
Her proposal led to an invitation to testify before the California State Legislature's Judicial Committee. "It was very exciting," Sharkey recalls, "I led off the first session," and was accorded "huge respect."
Cecil Rhodes had the right idea, looking for the ability "to use one's talents to the full." Yale provided the environment for Catherine Sharkey to do so. To Sharkey, Yale was a "perfect fit."
— Stephen Eschenbach