It was on the brisk, green fields of Harvard-Yale games that football was perfected. So it’s not surprising that sports count for something on Harvard applications. The admissions office rightly recognizes that playing sports adds something valuable to one’s character; high-school athletes develop leadership skills, hone competitive drive and learn to build trust with peers.
The value of recruited athletes extends beyond the playing fields into our dorms and dining halls. Recruiting for mainstream sports can bring much needed diversity to our college community, drawing students from a wide range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds. But it is only the truly-mainstream team sports like football, basketball and baseball, which are played at almost every high school across the country, that bring real diversity to Harvard.
But playing these popular sports can also work against applicants, as they must compete against thousands of others athletes who are vying for their precious spot on the Harvard roster. In an effort to stand out to admissions committees, therefore, students often turn to fringe sports as a means of getting into college. Sports such as crew have seen a ten-fold increase in high-school participation in the past ten years.
This would not be a problem, if the facilities required to participate in fringe sports were just as available as a pair of basketball hoops. Usually, however, the tilt toward fringe sports favors the wealthy few who send their children to prep schools, undermining one of the real benefits of athletic recruiting. After all, how many students from public high schools in Roxbury or from the corn fields of Iowa have the opportunity to row crew, much less fence, sail or play squash?
There are plenty of smart and exceptionally talented fencers at Harvard, but their athletic skill—which they most likely developed through the tutelage of their parents, or perhaps prep school—should not grant them admission. Athletic recruitment should be a special privilege reserved for those who can contribute to the College as a whole. It is the character of the student body, not the wins and losses of Harvard women’s fencing, that matters. It’s time for the admissions office to recognize that what makes an athlete stand out from the masses of applicants may not be what adds most to Harvard.