KING JAMES BIBLE: Cornell Column Misses Mark

We’ve all been there.

There’s a debate in section, and someone throws out an argument or a comment that has so little to do with the topic at hand that you are rendered unable to speak for a series of minutes, hours or even days.

After a brief pause, the section leader always chimes in, desperately searching for a shred of intellectual value to pull from that worthless scrap heap.

That’s one way to inform someone that he or she has missed the point.

Here’s another.

In a column published in the Cornell Daily Sun, staff writer Tim Kuhls broached an interesting topic of Ivy debate—athletic scholarships—and proceeded to make himself look like an idiot.

There are myriad angles from which to attack this ponderous dilemma.

Should schools which have already devoted 40 to 45 spots to high profile men’s sports—football, basketball and hockey—attempt to maximize the level of student-athlete they can attract by offering compensation that is competitive with the rest of the marketplace?

Is it right to implicitly value athletics more than other extracurricular activities by offering scholarships in the former arena and not the latter?

How should the scholarships be allocated and where should they stop? How does Title IX play into these considerations?

The good columnist from the Sun addresses none of these issues. His fresh, new analysis of the athletic scholarship discussion might best be summed up as he so eloquently put it, “Because we don’t admit retards at my school. The Ivy League means one thing and that’s serious academic business, baby.”

No effort will be made here to rehash all of his 1,038 word diatribe—please visit the Daily Sun’s website for the full masterpiece. Rather, I’d like to follow what I consider to be the worst published argument against athletic scholarships that I have ever seen.

First, Kuhls states that he stands proud because his school “still adheres to the ideals of the true student-athlete.” (Let’s leave aside the fact that, according to factors we’ll discuss later, Cornell has the weakest admissions standards of all the league’s schools.) He goes on to imagine a hypothetical Ivy League—under the athletic scholarship policy—in which the member institutions would admit a recruit “with an SAT score of 400 or an ACT score of nine, so long as their high school GPA in 14 core subjects is above a 3.55.”

No mention of the Academic Index floor—a lower-bound cutoff that prevents students with anything lower than approximately an 1100 to 1150 on the SATs from even being considered—and no discussion of the Ivy League’s AI banding policy, which sets the percentage of a school’s 30 recruits that must fit into different ranges of SAT scores and GPA levels—the components of the AI.

If Kuhls had mentioned these things, he’d realize that his proposition that “dumber athletes would bring down the average SAT score” is badly misinformed, precisely because the AI banding prohibits that from happening.

Along the way, the intrepid columnist brings up an economic study that found, get this, that smart schools with less intelligent athletes do better in sports than smart schools with smart athletes. And, despite the simplicity of the result, Kuhls still gets the analysis wrong. It’s not that smarter students are worse athletes than “dumb” students as he says, rather it’s that the recruiting pool for more intelligent prospects is much smaller than that of less intelligent athletes, making it harder to build a strong team with the former instead of the latter.

After having already abandoned the intellectual highway for the dirt road, Kuhls drives his argument straight into a lake by rattling off a history of big time players and schools who have gotten themselves into hot water with the NCAA.

Yes, Dexter Manley was illiterate and still got into—and graduated from—Oklahoma State. And Maurice Clarett was a disaster. And Adrian Peterson exclusively prefers the latter half of the student-athlete tag.

But what the hell does this have to do with the Ivy League and athletic scholarships?

Nothing. Which is approximately how much Kuhls seems to know about this debate.

It’s unfair, however, to lace into another’s opinion without offering up one’s own. So, here goes.

I’m against offering athletic scholarships. It’s not a cost-effective solution to the Ivies’ attraction and retention problem.

In terms of football, joining the national-letter-of-intent-day, changing the recruiting policy from 30 per year to 120 per four years—in order to allow coaches to stock up in strong years and pass on weak classes, rather than having to take equal numbers from both—and allowing member schools to play an eleventhp game, have more spring practices and compete for a national title, would all be cheaper solutions that could progress toward the same goal.

That’s not to say that scholarships wouldn’t raise the quality of both the student and the athlete that the Ivies accept.

The increase in competitiveness of the league’s offer relative to that of comparable schools (Patriot teams and I-A squads like Vanderbilt, Duke and Stanford) would likely allow the Ivies to sign a slightly larger portion of their primary targets than they can under the current system. The cost would be substantial, however, and a similar gain could be made by instituting the aforementioned “free” rule changes that would make participation in Ivy athletics—specifically, football—more attractive.

Aside from the purely financial aspects, athletic scholarships would open up a Pandora’s Box of equality issues, wouldn’t do much to lock a student into a sport—due to the prevalence of financial aid for those who can’t afford the hefty price tag—and it could foster and extend the perceived gap between student-athletes and student-cellists, student-governors, student-journalists, and the like.

What they wouldn’t do is turn the Ivy League into anything close to the scandal-ridden, standard-lacking mess that Kuhls implies.

Such an assertion is as irresponsible as it is correct, and Kuhls’ audience deserves better.

—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at mrjames@fas.harvard.edu.

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