Ending Athletic Preference

Harvard prides itself in excelling in everything it does. Yet there is a group of students from whom Harvard asks little more than mediocrity. That group of students is recruited athletes.

Unfortunately, the Harvard College admissions office seems to value athletic talent more than any other achievement, skill or potential aptitude. Varsity coaches tag applicants for special consideration. The admissions office, more often than not, must then find a reason to reject, rather than a reason to accept these tagged athletes. This tagging formalizes the inflated value that the College puts on athletic success. In many cases, this system places athletic virtuosity above academic ability for a significant portion of the admitted first-year class.

At Harvard, over one hundred athletes, many of whom may not have been admitted if normal academic standards had been applied, matriculate every year.

Although no statistics are provided by Harvard of these athletes’ academic performance, The Game of Life, a book written by William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman, compares elite north eastern colleges and shows that varsity athletes perform worse academically once they have enrolled than the rest of the undergraduate population. While this observation may be explained, in part, by the amount of time that the recruits devote to athletics once in college, the underlying problem is that many recruited athletes are not as academically capable as other students.

If all recruited athletes were as academically qualified as regular students, then there would be no need to give some athletes special consideration. Still, some would argue that to fill its teams Harvard needs to recruit athletes who are suited to individual positions. But Harvard can field numerous orchestras, bands and club sports teams—activities that require as much specialization as varsity sports—without resorting to formalized tagging methods.

The admissions process should not ignore athletics when making its acceptance decision, nor should it be based solely on grades and test scores. Activities outside the classroom are rightly valued by the admissions office. But athletics should be treated like any other extra-curricular activity and not given a special coach’s tag.

Just like many other extra-curriculars, sporting competition can often be a worthwhile activity. High school athletes often assume leadership positions, learn to understand the importance of discipline to achieving a goal and gain considerable self-esteem playing sports. Although these sporting experiences should be valued, mere sporting ability should not. Just because someone is seven-feet-tall and a basketball star, does not mean that person should be given admissions priority. Admissions officers must make sure that such students, whose primary activity was athletics, be judged as much on the value of their work as on their athletic prowess. Under this new system, many of our current athletes would still have been admitted, but a significant number would not have been.

Many people argue that raising the standards for athletic admissions would cause the quality of athletics to decline. If so, such a decline is acceptable. The relative competitiveness of the athletic programs would remain constant. Athletes’ experiences are predicated on this competition and not on the absolute level of skill.

Critics would also contend that diminished skill levels hurt the prestige of the University. This definition of prestige, however, is almost entirely self-imposed. MIT, for instance, is considered no less of a university due to its overall sporting ineptness. Harvard does not lose its dominant reputation to Cornell every time it is beaten at football, baseball or crew. This obsession with winning befits a professional sports program, but not one run out of Harvard’s campus.

Professionalism may be acceptable at schools like Ohio State, which act almost as minor leagues for professional sports and which have no qualms about giving their athletes a salary (athletic scholarships). However, professionalism is not acceptable at Harvard because our foremost concern is veritas, not victoria.

At one time, professional athletes did not masquerade as amateurs. In 1906, the NCAA bylaws defined amateur competition as preventing “the offering of inducements to players to enter colleges or universities because of their athletic abilities or supporting or maintaining players while students on account of their athletic abilities, either by athletic organizations, individual alumni, or otherwise, directly or indirectly.” Not only does Harvard remunerate their athletic recruits with one of the best educations in the world but also with the benefits a Harvard degree confers—something the money of hundreds of athletics scholarship could not buy.

Professionalism in college athletics only leads to increased self-segregation by the varsity athletes, as demonstrated in the study by Shulman and Bowen. Professionalism discourages athletes from participating in other activities, spending time on their studies and getting the well-rounded education for which Harvard is known. Professionalism diminishes the educational experience of those students who are academically capable, not only denying most of them the opportunity to play sports at an inter-collegiate level, but also depressing the intellectual level of sections, tutorials and lectures. But most importantly, professionalism denies a Harvard education to dozens of worthy candidates every year, whose places are taken by the numerous undeserving athletes.

It is vitally important that the College end the privileged status of athletes in admissions decisions, not only for sake of present students, but for the sake of veritas itself.

Nicholas F. Josefowitz ’05, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Grays Hall.


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