Ivy League rules prevent Harvard from accepting more than two football recruits in the top 15% of their class who don’t break 1,250. The competition for those two slots at the academic bottom of the Harvard football team, known as the first “band,” is fierce. “You’re not going to take a marginal player in the first band,” Westerfield says. “You only get two. It wouldn’t make sense.” But if the recruit can score just 20 points higher on the test, he suddenly looks a lot more likely to line up at scrimmage next year. Given his class rank, a 1,250 would push him past the cutoff for the second band, which gets seven slots. An improvement to 1,330 would have an even bigger effect on his chances, pushing him into band number three, from which Harvard can take 13 players. “If [this] kid’s a first-bander, we can’t take him,” Westerfield says. “If he’s a second-bander, we can. We’ll tell him that.”
If he makes the second band, applies to Harvard, and the tapes of him on the field as a senior look good, the football team is likely to formally support him. And with that support, his chances of getting into Harvard begin to resemble his chances of getting into, say, Providence College. Each year, Westerfield says, the team supports 50 to 60 applicants, 30 of whom are accepted, a rate of 50 to 60 percent. Providence’s acceptance rate last year was 55.2 percent. Harvard’s was under ten.
Is this fair? Westerfield thinks so. “Athletes add to the University with school spirit and entertainment,” he says. “Who’s to say what’s more important?” But about 20,000 kids will apply to Harvard this year, thousands of whom never saw a 1,300 on their first practice test, and few appreciate being passed over for a defensive lineman who could barely get into Cornell if he didn’t play football. An increasingly vocal set of critics think that traditional academic considerations are all too often left on the bench. Former Princeton president William G. Bowen just published the follow-up book to his 2000 The Game of Life, called Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, arguing that recruited athletes are academically and socially unrepresentative of the student bodies at elite schools. And this summer, in the name of improving “representativeness,” the Ivy League raised its base academic standards for athletes and imposed regulations on all sports, rather than just football and men’s basketball and ice hockey.
Over the last decade, critics focused on the big-time, revenue-generating college sports programs—North Carolina basketball, Michigan football and the like. But as the frenzy over selective college admissions grew to a feverish pitch in the second half of the 1990s, disgruntled rejected applicants began to point fingers at competing constituencies they believed were unqualified—first minorities, and more recently legacies. It was only logical that the biggest group of students to benefit from a non-academic selection preference—athletes—have now come under fire.
The way elite colleges approach athletic admissions reveals much about how broadly they define the merit that underpins meritocracy. Nobody wants a British-style system, where academic test scores are all that matter. But colleges recognize musical talent, reward unique life experiences and the overcoming of adversity, and recently established a “compelling interest” in racial diversity at the Supreme Court. What, if anything, separates prowess on the playing field from talent on the trombone?
With fans, coaches and alumni demanding successful squads, and outside critics and professors calling athletes academic underachievers, admissions offices are being pressured to answer this question from “every conceivable source and constituency,” according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. How admissions committees serve these two masters will effectively chart the course their universities take over the next decade. Harvard’s preliminary answer may be found in the envelope, thick or thin, that many of the Crimson students in Westerfield’s database receive this December.
Narrowing the Field
While recruiting is a full-time occupation for coaches in any sport, it is especially demanding in football, where rosters are the biggest and most specialized. Harvard’s team database starts with the names of some 7,000 high school football players, which they get from subscription services and correspondence with coaches. Because of Harvard’s sky-high admissions standards, coaches leave most on the cutting room floor as soon as their SAT scores come in. “A lot of those kids are not going to be recruitable due to academics,” Westerfield says. “Anyone that has a red flag that sticks out—if he’s not in the top 10 percent of their class, maybe stretch it to 15, he can’t get in. Below 1,250 or 1,300 SAT’s, it’s also very difficult to get in.” “It isn’t advisable to go to a game and fall in love with a kid who can never get in,” says Mark Mazzoleni, head coach of the men’s hockey team.
After the initial round of concessions to reality, the team sends potential recruits a blank videotape, which they hope to receive back with game film from the senior year. If the coaches remain impressed with a prospect, soon after applications arrive, they will put that candidate on their recruiting list, ranked and grouped by position. They pass this list on to their admissions liaison, a Byerly Hall staffer responsible for interaction with the team. Every student on a recruiting list is invited to visit the University at Harvard’s expense, and is guaranteed an interview with an admissions official in addition to the standard alumni interview. Bowen’s book showed that a student with a 1,200 combined SAT score was five times more likely to be admitted to at least one Ivy League school if he or she made it onto a recruiting list.
Unlike most Harvard applicants, who are deciding between Harvard and similarly highly-ranked schools based on academics, social life and extracurriculars, many recruited athletes receive full scholarship offers from colleges that demand an early commitment to attend. “Many kids we recruit are not making decisions on Harvard versus another Ivy,” says baseball head coach Joe Walsh. “It’s Harvard versus a scholarship school, and having to pay tuition or not. When a kid is 17 or 18, we’re trying to get him to look at the big picture, which is 20 years down the line with a Harvard degree in your pocket, but we lose a lot to Stanford and Duke because they have scholarship opportunities.”
Team officials contact recruited applicants as often as once a week, passing along word from their admissions liaison—often, according to Mazzoleni, a request for the student to produce a higher slate of SAT scores or semester grades. Yet while convincing the recruit not to commit elsewhere, they are simultaneously lobbying their admissions liaison to accept him. Most coaches express frustration at their inability to push admissions too far. “We don’t have much control in the process,” says Mazzoleni. “Ultimately, it’s their decision. Harvard is the first school I’ve been at where I can’t close on a kid. I don’t have that final say.” “I have fallen in love with candidates who didn’t have the academics to be here,” says men’s tennis head coach David Fish ’72, “and I’ve been stonewalled every time. Admissions will say, ‘Dave, if this person came here, he’d just be an athlete.’ I say, ‘He had a great forehand, but OK.’”
Yet while coaches don’t have as much sway as they would like, a spot on a recruiting list still represents a huge advantage in admissions. “We try to let Byerly know who could be a major contributor,” says freshman rowing coach Bill Manning. “We share with them more about their athletic background, what race results may be, competitions they’ve participated in, what might be happening around here that could make them a good fit. I equate it with a very strong counselor recommendation in someone’s file or a good music review of a tape.” While he says that if a candidate is “not competitive in the overall pool, there’s nothing that we can do, if they’re on the fence, we will certainly reiterate why we think highly of them, and that may help their application.”
Byerly Hall: Line of Defense
The two people responsible for breaking coaches’ hearts year after year are Fitzsimmons and Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. Every fall and winter, they complete the Herculean task of rejecting nearly 19,000 students—a job made even tougher by the need to replenish one-quarter of the rosters of 41 competitive Division I sports teams each year.
No matter how good an athlete is, admissions officers will only compromise so much. The Ivy League uses a number called the Academic Index (AI), which Bowen says he invented, to measure applicants’ classroom qualifications. The index is the sum of three components: the average of students’ highest SAT I math and verbal scores divided by ten; the average of their three highest SAT II achievement test scores divided by ten; and their class rank converted to a 20-to-80 scale. A student who answered every question wrong on every SAT he took and placed last in his class would have an AI of 60; one with 800s on all his SATs and first in his class would score 240, and one with 500s on all his SAT’s and around the middle of his class would get 150.