Ivy Athletics Under Fire

Influential book challenges traditional Harvard support for football program

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“The Game of Life,” co-written last year by a former Princeton University president, argues that college athletics are out of control and has spurred the Ivy League to consider recruiting cuts.

Two weeks from now, University President Lawrence H. Summers and the heads of the other seven Ivy League schools will meet to discuss league athletics policy.

On the table is a proposal to reduce the number of football players each school is permitted to recruit per year.

The proposal is not one that Harvard would seem likely to support. The University opposed the decision to slash the number of football recruits from 50 to 35 per year in 1991 and administrators from University Hall to the Murr Center have criticized the proposed move this year to decrease recruits further, to 25.

Yet the Ivy-wide trend to restrain the intensity of league athletics may prove to be unstoppable—presenting a serious challenge not only to competitive Ivy League football, but to all athletic programs and to Harvard’s decades-old admissions philosophy.

Spurred by persistent concerns that big-time athletics were subverting the academic mission of higher education and straining university budgets, the Ivy League presidents asked their athletic directors last fall to consider not only reducing the number of football players but also cutting back on all recruited athletes.

Adding more fuel to fire, last year former Princeton president William G. Bowen co-authored an influential book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, criticizing the growing professionalization of collegiate athletics, implicating the Harvards and Yales along with the Miamis and Penn States.

The Ivy League took a major step in the direction of scaling back football programs last month.

At a meeting in Vermont three weeks ago, the league’s athletic directors reached a compromise that the number of recruits be reduced from 35 to 30 rather than 25, according to Yale head football coach John P. Siedlecki.

Last week, the issue was discussed by a larger committee of athletic directors and other Ivy university officials. This committee’s recommendation will be forwarded on to the university presidents for a final decision.

While Siedlecki says 30 is “a number I can work with,” he says he thinks a reduction of recruits to 25 would devastate Ivy League football programs by effectively eliminating junior varsity (JV) football programs, upon which coaches rely for developing underclass talent.

Harvard Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise has voiced many of the same concerns.

Yet Summers has been uncharacteristically noncommittal on where he stands on cutting recruits, saying he prefers to wait until the Ivy university presidents meet June 17 before taking a side.

The silence from Mass. Hall leaves open the possibility that the new president, who has publicly fretted about the state of academics at the College, could depart from Harvard’s traditional support for maintaining the highest possible level of athletic competitiveness in the Ivies.

Even if Summers, who visibly enjoyed Harvard football’s undefeated 2001 season, does decide to fight for the status quo, some maintain that the momentum for change may be too great to overcome.

Siedlecki says some kind of reduction in recruits is all but assured when the presidents meet to decide the issue in two weeks.

“I hate to say it’s inevitable, but I think it is,” he says.