Leaving the Locker Room

Harvard prides itself on a competitive athletic program and an official policy of amateurism, but former athletes show that finding the balance is easier said than done.

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Halle K Phillips

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It’s been four years since Jeffrey C. Witt ’09 stood under the floodlights in his hometown stadium, playing amid the raucous cries of 15,000 fans.

Such a crowd was standard for the Georgia high school football championship game. Georgia is football country, and Witt, then a high school senior, led Parkville High School to its promised land. The college coaches were calling, had been calling for some time now. Stanford expressed interest, Dartmouth left messages, Harvard sent e-mails. A scholarship to some Division I institution seemed assured.

Soon, e-mails became phone calls, official visits, thick envelopes. Witt chose to play in Cambridge, realizing that football could allow him access to a Harvard education. He would be the first person from his high school to attend Harvard: “Where I come from,” he says, “people didn’t even take Harvard seriously—not in an academic sense—but in the sense that it was never even mentioned that you could dream of going to Harvard.” Witt laughs before recalling, “it was just kind of like a mythical land where geniuses inhabited the place.” Though he wasn’t expecting the sold-out stadiums and enormous hype of more high-profile Division I programs, he looked forward to the privileges of playing on the college level.


FIRST-RATE COMMITMENT, SECOND-RATE REWARDS


Witt’s first Harvard football memory, however, would leave him disappointed. “My first game as a Harvard player was on the JV practice field against Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in front of about 12 people who were maybe relatives of the kids from WPI,” he says. For a recruited athlete accustomed to a successful team and a devoted following, this was not the college homecoming that seemed to have been promised, ordained. “Literally the closest thing I can relate it to is when I first started playing football, when I was like six or seven” Witt explains. “We used to play on this kind of empty field that just had some lines on it. A couple of parents would come out and support the kids—that was essentially the way it felt to me.”

The rest of his freshman season was more of the same: he was assigned to scout duty, reduced to preparing the starters for real competition. Witt squeezed some playing time into a 55-7 win against Columbia in New York, but the coaching staff didn’t allow his right arm to make it into the scoring summary. During spring practices and into summer and preseason workouts, Witt started to get some more snaps, see some more reps, but it seemed somewhat in vain: two upperclassmen still stood solidly in the way.

In a close game against Holy Cross, an injury to the quarterback prompted Witt’s entry—“thrust into the fray,” as he put it—“me, who had never really even been considered as a player.” The Crimson went on to win, Witt threw for his first touchdown, and when his team arrived in Providence for a much-anticipated match-up against Brown, Witt was penciled in as starter. Things were looking up. Though Witt was the fifth Harvard player to start as quarterback in just 13 games, perhaps Harvard had finally found the quarterback of the future. Another win was imminent. Harvard had jumped out to a 31-7 lead. Witt threw another touchdown. In the second half, a Brown linebacker—who would later go on to win a Superbowl—sidelined Witt, tearing a ligament in his throwing shoulder. It was the last game he’d play as quarterback. “It wasn’t so long after that before it was the end of my career,” says Witt.


THE PARADOX OF PROFESSIONALISM


It wasn’t the injury alone that prompted Witt’s departure. Football at Harvard was just not his brand of football. The lack of enthusiasm from students, the Ivy League restrictions, the impossibility of seeing an NCAA playoff spot: for Witt, it all led to a second-tier level of competition that was not reflected in the talent or devotion of the players themselves.

These limiting factors, however, exist in stark contrast with the way Harvard Football conducts its business. Harsh and demanding training regimens are paired with ambitious recruiting techniques. For Witt, this translated into incompatibility. “I never felt comfortable as a Harvard football player,” he says, “I never felt that my talents were being utilized in any way, were given any opportunity to be shown. I basically just felt that I was relegated to the scout team immediately and I thought that was unfair, [it] certainly was a misrepresentation on the part of the coaches and how they recruited me.” Furthermore, he says, “I felt like the training was a little bit ridiculous.” Witt is quick to stress that he didn’t see this as a simple intensification from high school to college football: “the [high school] division I played in, it was very serious stuff. Not to blow it out of proportion, but it’s not like I came here shocked that people lifted weights and ran sprints.” It wasn’t that the training was unbearable; it didn’t, however, match the atmosphere created by the Ivy League restrictions meant to reduce the game’s intensity.

Head football coach Tim Murphy estimates that the retention rate of recruited athletes over the past 15 years is about 70 percent. Even if this rate of attrition may be different in other sports, losing recruits once they are already on campus is an issue that resonates across the entire athletic department. Head softball coach Jenny Allard writes in an e-mail to The Crimson that students’ reasons for leaving vary: “Some students want the flexibility in their schedules to pursue other opportunities at Harvard.” Others are injured. Some, like Witt, cannot accustom themselves to the fact that they are putting in a Division I level of commitment while receiving paltry payoffs in appreciation and success. In this sense, Harvard athletics seems to be caught in a no-man’s-land between the day to day reality of extreme competition and an official policy of amateurism. The question is, what happens to the casualties—the recruited athletes who can’t adjust to living in between?


THE POLICY PLAYBOOK


In the fall of 1945, the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Pennsylvania ratified the first “Ivy Group Agreement.” Dismayed at the encroachment of sponsorships and professional incentives into the supposedly amateur sphere of college athletics, these eight schools committed themselves to conducting their athletic programs “on a high plane consistent with academics.”

The decision came at a turning point in the history of the College. With the recent end of World War II came the GI Bill and a subsequent rush of veterans looking to complete their college educations. This was in addition to the regular set of high school seniors vying to enter the Yard. Facing the task of turning away an unprecedented number of applicants, the College was forced to review its admissions standards.

From these conditions emerged the modern-day athletic policy of Harvard. Yes, the administration decided, the College would actively seek athletes for its student body. Yes, it would strive to remain competitive with its peers. No, students would not receive athletic scholarships, but they would have the same opportunities as other needy students for financial aid.

Since these rules were implemented, the competition in both athletics and academics in American universities has intensified. According to a 2003 report by the NCAA, Division I-AA colleges, including Harvard, expanded annual athletics spending by ninety-one percent, from $3.94 million per school in 1993 to $7.53 million in 2003. The increase is dramatic even accounting for the rise of women’s sports during that period. A similar trend has occurred in academics. In 1993, the college accepted 15 percent of its applicants. Impressive by today’s standards, that rate is still more than twice the seven percent that was admitted into the class of 2013.

Harvard’s athletic policy assumes that a university can have it all—competitive athletics and strong academics. However, given the high-pressure environments that both worlds have become, balancing the two can take a toll on student-athletes.


RUNNING OUT OF BREATH


By the summer after junior year of high school, Elizabeth L. Altmaier ’10 had drafted a list of colleges that she wanted to play for. She intentionally avoided schools that offered athletic scholarships.

“Personal preference,” she says. “I don’t like the concept of signing yourself over to somebody.”

Altmaier flew out to Cambridge in September of her senior year and fell in love with Harvard’s academics and location. The choice became clear when a basketball player told her that her teammates would become her family. In a year, Altmaier found herself lacing up for practices with the women’s basketball team.

Although she didn’t plan on continuing basketball after graduation, Altmaier fully expected it to be a significant part of her college experience.

“I had no intention at the time of not playing basketball for four more years,” she says.

In her first year at Harvard, Altmaier spent anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week with basketball. Practices even kept her from going home to California during vacations. But as the team fought its way out of a 1-10 start to the season to win an Ivy League title and a spot in the March Madness tournament, she found that it was worth it.

“I loved my teammates, and I was playing basketball,” Altmaier says. “That was about as much as I could ask for.”

But by her second year, the demands of the sport were beginning to wear her out. At the same time, Altmaier was still not getting the playing time that she wanted. She only played 28 minutes in her entire sophomore season. To watch others step onto the court and actually make use of their training can be bearable for a freshman, but disheartening for a sophomore struggling to justify the costs of a varsity sport. Altmaier recalls thinking about those elements of Harvard life in which she was missing out—the people, the extracurricular activities, the time to consider concentrations.

“You don’t realize how you’re limited until you stop playing a sport,” she says. “The opportunity costs are huge.”

That point came earlier this school year when Altmaier was offered the chance to conduct genetics research that would lead to her officially co-authoring a paper. As a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator interested in a career in science, the opportunity was irresistible. After spending a summer “emotionally exhausted,” talking to her roommates and parents, Altmaier decided that she couldn’t handle another year of basketball. The coaches understood her situation.

“It’s not unprecedented,” she says. “It has happened before.”

In fact, she was the second player in several weeks to leave the team, and at least one more would do the same in the upcoming season. A typical varsity basketball team only has 12 players; Harvard’s women’s squad currently has 10.


THE COACHES


Kathy Delaney-Smith, head coach of women’s basketball, refuses to characterize all athletes’ departures as “quitting.”

“I don’t ever call it quitting unless they’ve done it in the middle of the season, after they’ve made a commitment,” she says.

Instead, players and the coaching staff often reach this decision together. Sometimes a coach will actually encourage a player to drop the sport. Yet managing a team after losing a player remains a challenge. Recruiting plans must adjust, and remaining players are shifted around to fill gaps.

“If you plan for that, which I’m guessing most coaches do, you can survive it,” Delaney-Smith says.

Nonetheless, losing players is something to be avoided, and Harvard coaches face the especially difficult task of attracting and retaining athletes without the mechanism of the athletic scholarship. Whereas financial aid contingent upon athletic participation is a powerful incentive used by schools across the country, the ban on such scholarships in the Ivy League means that coaching staff must rely on other tactics.

According to Saretsky, it is crucial for an Ivy League coach to distinguish between the prospective students who are passionate about their sport and those who are “just trying to pad their resume.” Delaney-Smith also talks about discerning the level of “passion” in a prospective student-athlete.

“It’s certainly not a science,” she says. “I often will ask the question, ‘Can you see yourself not playing basketball?’ And then generally by their answer, I can get an opinion about their passion for the game.”

Despite its imperfections, coaches seem to prefer this method of recruiting over simply offering a sum of money.

“Having previously worked at a scholarship school, it is not a good feeling to go down to practice and know that some of the kids are just there because they are on scholarship and so they have to be there,” writes Jason Saretsky, director of track and field, in an e-mail to The Crimson.


THE PRODIGY


Halfway through the interview, Tomas Balcetis ’10, a star Lithuanian swingman, asks, “Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if I stayed, right?”

Balcetis has long three-point stroking fingers, a quick beard, and perfect enunciation. He maneuvers around the vowels in “official visits” as if they are point guards playing defense. Years after his highly touted arrival on campus, the spring in his lanky frame is still visible, born of years of European training.

In Lithuania, Balcetis explains, “we have academic schools and basketball schools.” A product of the Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball Academy, named after the first Lithuanian player to go to the NBA, Balcetis also played for his country’s junior national team. Upon reaching high school age, however, he had not yet decided whether to focus on athletics or academics. So he moved to America.

As a senior, Balcetis averaged 20 points a game for his private school in New Hampshire. He received offers from reputable programs such as Richmond and Duquesne. Stanford flew him out for an official visit, an honor in itself for such a competitive program, but ultimately couldn’t find room. In the end Balcetis came to Harvard, but he would never appear in an official game.

“I always had this heart condition,” Balcetis explains. Realizing how shocking this can sound, he hurriedly adds, “first of all, it’s really nothing serious. I don’t want to alarm anyone.” He had ignored the condition for years but the transition to college prompted another chance to consider his options.“The reason I chose Harvard was because I wasn’t really sure how far I could go with basketball when I got into college,” he says. “When I got into Harvard, you know, it was like I should definitely give it a try, but after a long decision-making process I decided to stop doing it because if it’s not 100% then there’s no reason to do it at all.”

In an interview with The Crimson shortly after quitting, Balcetis said something similar: “...when the level of basketball increases, the workload increases, so it’s kind of hard to sometimes go 100%, and college basketball is all 100% or nothing.”

More than two years later, Balcetis says, “I didn’t see the reason to not go 100% all the time.” Balcetis’ quotes are fixated on this elusive 100%, as if childhood basketball is maybe 50%, high school ball 80%, never reaching the highest level until college. “It’s a pre-professional step in your basketball career—that definitely affected my decision,” he says.

Waving one hand in the air, he adds, “I still obviously play a lot of basketball on my own time—I try to keep in shape—but it’s definitely because of, you know, this high level. College basketball is definitely high level. Some people think that Ivy League is not high level. Let them come to some of the practices.”


A GOOD MODEL


The troubles of student-athletes can often be traced to the recruiting period, when promising high school students see Harvard as an opportunity to pursue both academic and athletic prospects. In an effort to attract top talent, coaches may paint the picture of college athletics as being rosier than it actually is. However, even with full disclosure and the best of intentions on the part of coaches, the information gap remains large for the 17- or even 16-year-olds deciding whether or not to play college sports.

“How do you judge? You have no idea because you’re not in college, and you’re not in college athletics,” Altmaier says. “You really don’t know what your criteria are for making you happy.”

It is perhaps precisely at these moments, when students’ expectations are dashed by long hours on the bench and problem sets on rides back from away games, that Harvard’s refusal of athletic scholarships becomes most beneficial. The attitudes behind such policies may also be increasingly necessary. In a 2006 study, sixty-two percent of Division I student-athletes reported viewing themselves more as athletes than students, despite the NCAA’s official stance that “[i]ntercollegiate athletics programs shall be maintained as a vital component of the educational program,” not the other way around.

But why the fixation on athletics? What makes sacrificing classes for 20 hours of practice each week any different from 20 hours at rehearsal or, for that matter, any non-academic use of a student’s time? Josephine R. Potuto, a co-author of the 2006 study, is a law professor at the University of Nebraska and the chair of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. An outspoken critic of the escalation in college athletics, Potuto points out that unlike with any other activity, the university itself plays a dominating role in taking students away from their studies.

“I think it’s different [to] institutionalize it than if that student had the extra time and just played video games,” she says.

Potuto does believe that a school can have both competitive teams and consistently challenging academics. However, the situation is also a zero-sum game, and high standards in one will necessarily require some forfeit in the other.

“When you go to a school with very rigorous admissions requirements, you know what you’re getting into as a coach,” she says.

And despite the jokes about Ivy League sports, Harvard does consistently put out nationally ranked teams. Regardless of official policies, Division I membership fosters Division I drive and, consequently, Division I pressure. The coaches unequivocally stated that academics come first, but the balance is particularly delicate at Harvard, requiring constant communication between athletes, coaching staff, and faculty. This is especially true when the cold reality of playing a sport begins to obscure the lofty principles that the university declares. According to Saretsky, the track and field team has gone as far as rearranging flights for students to meet the demands of their classes. Yet coaches also agree with this ranking of priorities.

“I think Harvard is the model,” Delaney-Smith says. “The country should be doing what Harvard is doing.”

Perhaps a good model doesn’t have to work for everyone. Inevitably, there will injuries, dissatisfaction with playing time, development of other interests. Rather, what makes a model good is that it allows those people to drop out at a minimal cost when things go wrong. Not that the decision to leave is ever easy, but entering a life after sports at Harvard is certainly feasible. According to Katherine C. “Kacey” Wilson ’10, a former cross country runner who left after her freshman year, it can even be revitalizing.

“Running was integral to my identity in high school,” she says. “It was interesting to lose that, and I really enjoyed reconstructing myself.”


LIFE AFTER SPORTS


The end of Altmaier’s basketball career hasn’t resulted in idle time. In addition to her genetics research, she is currently involved with the Entrepreneurship Forum, managing their annual I3 Harvard College Innovation Challenge. This summer, she will be working as a summer analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, a position she discovered at one of the OCS panels that she had the time to attend now that she was done with basketball.

“These types of things are always, inevitably scheduled at the same time as practice,” she says. “You can’t go. There’s no possibility.”

Though her plans after college are unclear, Altmaier expresses interest in biotechnology. Because getting a job may be tough in the current economy, she is also considering graduate school.

“I’m trying to take things one step at a time,” she says.

For Witt, things moved quickly after football. “I quit on like a Monday or a Tuesday,” he recalls. That Wednesday, he tried out for common casting and won a role. The shock of the abrupt shift from the gridiron to the stage was not lost on Witt: “If I were to say here at Harvard, ‘Oh, I’m in a play this semester,’ people would say, ‘Whoa, that’s fantastic, that’s so cool.’ Were I to say that back in high school people would be like, ‘Oh, big deal.’” Witt laughs, “It’s funny to compare the two worlds, one world turned on its head.”

Going out into the real world next year, Witt has been accepted into a fellowship in politics in which he’ll be splitting time between Colorado and Washington, D.C. He also had an offer to return to the Wall Street firm where he interned last summer. Eventually he wants to go to law school.

And at least one student plans to translate his sports backgound into a career. Before the interview, Balcetis lays his phone carefully on its side on the radiator next to him. He doesn’t mention it until the discussion turns to careers and the future. He grins and points at the phone, saying, “I’m trying to actually get a job with the NBA. I’m actually waiting for a call right now, as we speak, with the Player Development Group. Sports entertainment, sports marketing, things like that.” He leaves the phone where it is, adding, “I definitely want to stay as involved as possible with basketball.”