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The High Cost of Winning
What is the proper role of intercollegiate sports at Yale and institutions like it? That question has been debated intensely off and on at least since 1954, when the newly formed Ivy Group barred its football teams from postseason play and spring practice and required that performers on all varsity teams be “representative” of members' student populations as a whole.
Now, a troubling new book is bringing the issue sharply into the spotlight again. The questions it raises are hard to dismiss, even by diehard sports fans like me. And, while some of the book’s conclusions may be infused overmuch with the academic’s view that the classroom is the only campus venue that really matters, its revelations and insights need to be taken seriously.
Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, by two economists—William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton, and Sarah A. Levin, a daughter of Yale’s current president—builds on a 2001 work by Bowen and James Shulman '87, '93PhD, The Game of Life. The previous book looked broadly into the role of sports on a wide variety of campuses over a long span of years. The new volume focuses hard on 33 highly selective institutions, schools united by their forswearing of athletic scholarships: the Ivy eight, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (which includes such schools as Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan), the University Athletic Association (including Carnegie Mellon, Emory, the University of Chicago), certain coed liberal arts colleges (such as Oberlin, Pomona, and Swarthmore), and three women’s colleges (Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley).
Its disquieting conclusion, first suggested in the earlier volume but rendered in withering detail this time, is that sports in some respects is just as corrupting of academic values within this group as it is at such all-out athletics factories as Alabama, Michigan, Miami, and UCLA.
Of course, the sins of the highest-profile college football and basketball programs in most ways dwarf anything seen in the Ivies and their confreres. At many big-time schools, the lure of money from TV contracts and bowl games, the prestige of national championship tournaments, and the alumni appeal of full arenas and winning records have led to a pervasive regime of hypocrisy among coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents. They preside over a system that recruits young athletes who have little interest in or ability for academics, houses them apart from other undergraduates, often looks the other way when they imbibe steroids to bulk up their bodies, and tosses them out (usually without a diploma) when they have used up their eligibility.
Bowen and Levin argue that, though the abuses are clearly more subtle, there is much to be worried about in the Ivy League universities and among similarly prestigious schools. True, these institutions have constrained the sums of money they spend on varsity sports, imposed restrictions on postseason play, curbed the extent to which coaches can claim hour after hour of an athlete’s time, and insisted on higher academic qualifications for recruits to their teams. They also regularly graduate far greater proportions of their student-athletes than do the sports mills.
But that is just part of the story. Behind the ivied walls, Bowen and Levin contend, the more intellectually prestigious schools are making some pernicious compromises. Using a comprehensive database of academic qualifications (including SAT scores) and academic performance (class rank for all four years in college) for 27,811 students admitted to these schools in 1995, the authors have assembled a penetrating indictment.
To a large extent, they report, teams at these schools are stocked with athletes specifically recruited to play on them. In football and basketball and other major sports, the proportion of recruits to walk-ons is now typically four to one at many colleges. (The authors' data were provided to them on the condition that they release no information on individual schools, but they break down the statistics by group.) At the Ivy schools, among male freshmen entering in 1995, 89 percent of the hockey players, 83 percent of the football players, and 82 percent of the basketball players were designated by the coaches of those sports for special admissions consideration. For women in high-profile sports, the proportions were almost as high: 75 percent in basketball, 70 percent in swimming, 69 percent in gymnastics. So the opportunity for ordinary students to win a place on team rosters is limited, and the varsity teams are approaching the status familiar at the big-time sports powers: that of squads of hired gladiators.
The path to recruitment is far more efficient than it was years ago. Once, coaches gave the admissions offices long lists of players they were interested in. The admissions staff would then factor in that interest among many other criteria in deciding whom to accept.
Now, at many of the 33 schools in this study, including the Ivy League, each coach every year is allocated a certain number of slots—30, in the case of Ivy football. Early in the process, a coach settles on his preferred list, generally picking young athletes who he thinks meet the school’s minimum entrance criteria. Admissions officers advise the coach when a potential recruit on his list is likely to fail the process, thereby allowing the coach to replace that name with another.
Thus, while the admissions department technically has the final say, the football coach typically will win entry for all 30 of his choices. This is true for coach after coach in sport after sport, men’s and women’s alike. Yes, athletic scholarships are banned and all financial aid is determined on the basis of need. But the coaches have the ability to offer the next best thing to outstanding prospects who meet the minimum academic standard: assured admission.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the recruited athletes at these hallowed schools have much poorer scholarly qualifications than their classmates, averaging in the lowest quarter of their undergraduate class. But, to my surprise at least, their academic performance as undergraduates is not only significantly lower than that of fellow undergraduates as a whole, it is also lower than is predictable from their own entering qualifications. This holds true in nearly every sport, and enormously so in football. The disparity holds up even when the data are adjusted for a wide variety of factors, including race and qualification for financial aid.
As these academically prestigious colleges and universities have sought to be “competitive” in a widening roster of sports, including women’s sports, increasingly large numbers of spots in each entering class are set aside for recruited athletes. One of the more provocative assertions of the study is that, because the undergraduate populations of these schools tend to be much smaller than those of the sports factories, the impact on them is proportionally much greater.
At the Ivy League schools, the authors report, sports recruits represented 16 percent of all male undergraduates admitted in 1995. At smaller colleges the size of Williams or Amherst, the proportion at times has risen to a phenomenal 25 percent. At huge schools like Texas and Ohio State, the proportion is much lower; in effect, academically underachieving athletes are “hidden” and, Bowen and Levin argue, they don’t have nearly the same effect of depriving other deserving candidates of a chance at a topflight education.
The picture the authors paint is one of perversion of the idealized view of college athletics. In that vision—mens sano in sano corpore, the healthy mind in a healthy body—students take time from their studies to join in sports, so as to test their skill and determination as individuals and as members of teams, learning lessons in fair play and of collaboration and sacrifice toward a goal. What Bowen and Levin see instead is a rapidly spreading pattern in which the teams are dominated by young men and women who are on campus almost solely to perform, and who disdain participating in most other aspects of undergraduate life, including study. (They quote an unnamed university president: “Let’s give college sports back to the students.”)
It isn’t that the recruited athletes are unable to pass their courses and graduate. At most of these schools, the graduation rates for recruited athletes five years after enrollment are at least as good as those for students at large, in the range of 80 percent to 90 percent. While less academically apt, on average, than their classmates, recruited athletes at these schools are no dummies. At Yale, recruits average some 170 points below the 1470 combined mean SAT score for all entering freshmen—“and 1300 will get you into a top-notch state school,” notes Yale president Richard Levin.
Still, whatever their scholarly skills, the persistent underperformance of recruited athletes, their clustering in a few, presumably easy, social-science majors, their widespread disaffection for academic pursuits—these factors lead the authors to question the fairness of giving scarce places at prestige institutions to athletes who have little apparent interest in taking advantage of the intellectual riches laid before them.
To redress the balance, to bring the role of college sports on Ivy and similar campuses back to what the founders of the Ivy Group envisioned 49 years ago, the authors put forward an aggressive nine-point program of reform. Their proposals include tightening procedures for recruiting and admitting athletes; encouraging more walk-ons and limiting the percentage of recruits per team; cutting the time required to participate in an athletic program, particularly the off-season practices and workouts; shrinking squad size, particularly for football, to contain the enormous costs of that sport; and accepting that in many sports, competition will not be against the best in the game, but against other like-minded institutions.
Reclaiming the Game is a disturbing read for a sports fan. It’s a tale reminiscent of the history of campaign finance reform: Plug up the flow of money (or academically underqualified athletes) in one place, and new leaks open up quietly and legally somewhere else. More disturbing still, much as I would have liked to hear Yale president Levin explain to me that the book’s Ivy League database was off-base for Yale, and that healthy minds in healthy bodies are still the rule for the Bulldogs, he didn’t do so. In general, he seems to agree with the author’s analysis. The Ivy presidents, he said, implemented some of the book’s recommendations even before its publication—reducing the number of places football coaches can claim in each entering class from 35 to 30, tightening the minimum academic standards for recruits, and capping the number of recruits.
But I also don’t think he is inclined to overreact by adopting the full menu of changes the authors advocate, and that, in my view, is a good thing. After all, they’re academics, and they write from that angle. They assume that an undergraduate’s success or lack thereof is reflected by his or her grades or rank in class, either absolutely or relative to what is predicted. Though it would be far harder to measure, I would rate success at least to some extent in terms of a student’s aspirations and his or her achievements in later life.
Calvin Hill '69 was recruited to Yale, and Bill Bradley to Princeton. They are only the best-known post-sports success stories. Vernon Loucks '57 and Robert Rizzo '78 played on Ivy Championship football teams; Loucks became the CEO of Baxter, and Rizzo is a cardiac surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Ken Wolfe '61 was a tailback who went on to become CEO of Hershey Foods. Quarterback Kurt Schmoke '71 was the mayor of Baltimore and today is the dean of Howard University Law School. Other names include many managing partners, presidents, and CEOs.
All of this strongly suggests that the signal benefit of a Yale education—its potential to develop and elevate leaders—exists for the athlete as well as the scholar. The authors recognize this effect but dismiss it. They say it’s impossible to tell what contributions to society might have been made by those who would have attended these universities if the athletes had not.
Perhaps. Though I can’t prove it with data, I’m inclined to believe that a Yale graduate who has shown the discipline to contribute substantially to a varsity team often has garnered what it takes to lead in later life, particularly in business. I also think that, more importantly, there is gain for all students at a school when classmates who put their physical skills visibly on the line have success on the field and success in careers afterwards.
I’m wary of the notion that one can get all the character-building benefits of athletic competition when recruiting is de-emphasized and no one is taking sports too seriously. True, with the big-time programs scuba-diving the deepest depths of the SAT and high school grade pool in search of athletic talent, academically selective schools will never again challenge for a national title in football or basketball. Yet, for certain schools in certain sports in certain years—Princeton in lacrosse, Brown in soccer, Yale in lightweight crew and women’s cross country—it is and should remain possible to compete at a national level without doing violence to the virtues of academic paramountcy. And even in the high-profile sports, there are occasional opportunities for one of these schools to get past the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, or for a lone football player to find his way to the NFL.
Why should we care about this? I think there is a kind of connectedness to the rest of society that comes from being in the company of people at least some of whom could compete at the highest level of any activity, including sport. If, as some argue, our society is becoming ever more stratified and specialized, by income, wealth, social class, education level, profession—if our wars are fought by people whom most of us Yale graduates are unlikely ever to meet—then there is virtue in leaning against that just a bit. There is virtue in retaining a place at Yale for world-class athletic endeavor, so that our students, who learn as much from each other as from their professors, see close up if not through actual participation what it takes to achieve that kind of excellence.
Of course, participation is better than observation. Reading this book reinforces my belief that a careful balance needs to be struck between the twin goals of having excellent teams and permitting talented but unrecruited students to find places on them. The case of Hank Paulson may be instructive. As a high school football player in the early 1960s, he was sought after by Dartmouth, with encouraging letters arriving at frequent intervals. And so he enrolled and went out for football. He was not only all-Ivy at his position, he was also all-East. His teams won the league championship two out of three years. Only much later did he find out that he wasn’t on the coaches' A list or even the B list. He was on the C list. As a tackle weighing less than 200 pounds, he was viewed as possibly too light. Under today’s system, he wouldn’t have been a recruit at all and might well have never attended Dartmouth. He graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key and is now chief executive of the mighty investment bank Goldman Sachs.
I know, I know, it’s dangerous to reason by anecdote. But there might be some good in returning, part way, to the old system. What if lots of young men and women with outstanding promise for both sport and scholarship were encouraged to apply to schools like Yale, and the schools accepted more of those young people on the basis of that particular mix of talents—instead of relying so heavily on the coaches' recruit lists, which place maximum emphasis on potential for the sport, and look at academic ability mainly as a minimum standard to meet? There would be more athletes on campus, but fewer of them would owe their presence so directly to their coaches.
In other words, despite my despair over Yale’s recent record of losing fairly persistently at football to Harvard and Penn, in basketball to Penn and Princeton, in hockey to Cornell, and in lacrosse to Princeton, I am coming to the conclusion that the right thing may be to curb the number of direct recruits in such sports. Particularly if the other guys have to as well.
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