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Two years ago, former Princeton president William Bowen ignited a firestorm by claiming that collegiate athletics were too professionalized and too intense.
Last month, he published another book directly targeting athletics at smaller schools, and coaches at Harvard are already denouncing it.
For the first time, Bowen used data from Harvard to argue that some small schools are so focused on athletics that they are forgetting their academic mission.
Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, a follow-up to The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, is armed with what Bowen calls stronger data from all Ivy League schools and a narrower focus.
“I think that now that this kind of evidence is really available for the first time, it just gives more weight to the concerns that people have expressed,” Bowen said.
But many coaches and alumni see the publication of the second book, which focuses on smaller colleges and universities—in the Ivy League, New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and University Athletic Administration—as an attack on the leagues that work hardest to ensure academic credentials. His 2002 book The Game of Life focused on NCAA powerhouse schools such as Michigan and other Division IA schools.
“To take a look at the two leagues [Ivy and NESCAC] that are the most pure and most balanced regarding an athletic experience and an academic experience, to make strong, damaging claims that are unbalanced is wrong,” said women’s basketball head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.
In Reclaiming the Game, Bowen and co-author Sarah Levin ’00, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former all-American sailor, argued that spots on intercollegiate teams should not be limited to recruits but open to any students.
While recruits are likely to be underqualified academically, “walk-ons” would better reflect the academic level of the rest of the class, they argue.
But coaches say they could not run a team without recruited athletes, who they say bring a high level of dedication and commitment to their team.
“The kind of early athletic specialization that...is happening across the U.S. has reduced ‘walk-on’ participation at every level of athletics, across the country,” Ivy League executive director Jeff Orleans wrote in an e-mail. “So the Ivy League’s experience isn’t unique, nor is our outlook: the common collegiate experience is that fewer folks are interested in being walk-ons.”
Head Football Coach Tim Murphy attended a roundtable with Bowen and various league administrators and coaches last spring, where Murphy said he confronted misconceptions about the “culture of athletics,” including the idea that non-recruited students want spots on the varsity football team.
“We welcome walk-ons but, believe me, they are almost non-existent because most want a much lower level of competition and commitment,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail.
Women’s ice hockey coach Katey Stone said she also does not think non-recruits have the desire to spend so much time honing their skills on the field or on the ice.
“I think it’s got to be a special kid who’s going to come in unrecruited and work at the level they need to, to be a Division I athlete,” she said. “But certainly it’s possible.”
Reviewing Outcomes, Not Just Incomes
Bowen also suggested that recruited athletes be tested not only for admission, but also for their academic performance once they are already on campus.
Bowen said he was “the principal inventor” of the academic index, a computation of several factors used to determine an incoming athlete’s eligibility. This helped answer the question of who was qualified for admission, but it didn’t answer the problem of representativeness.
“It isn’t enough to look at the credentials of people when they come in,” Bowen said. “You have to look at how people do after they’re there.”
“I think it’s critical to chart success once on campus—and more than just the graduation rate,” Stone said. “Just as we go over these kids’ profiles with a fine-toothed comb before they come in, it’s great to see how they do once they’re here.”
According to Reclaiming the Game, recruited athletes—especially male athletes who play the “high profile” sports: football, basketball, and hockey—are not academically representative of their classes. They concentrate disproportionately in the social sciences, and their class ranks are, on average, disproportionately low. Though Bowen and Levin argue that the time commitment teams demand of their athletes should be further reduced, their statistics show that other groups with similar commitments—including non-recruited, “walk-on” athletes—do not under perform the way recruited athletes do. Musicians, for example, over perform, they said.
But for some critics, a more fundamental problem is the terms of evaluation.
“It’s a very narrow spectrum across which students are measured,” said men’s tennis head coach David Fish ’55. “I see a lot of different expressions of intelligence, [and] it may happen that if you play the piano or the violin that there might be a closer alignment with what is tested,” he said. “But I don’t think that comes even close to describing the whole story, a whole person.”
Delaney-Smith said she has received hundreds of angry e-mails from alumni regarding the book.
“Athletes at elite universities may have lower SATs and GPAs—a previous study of Bowen’s proved that—and they may not be as involved in student government or the orchestra, but that does not translate into a ‘lack of connection to student life,’” Kelly Kinneen ’99, a former basketball player, wrote in an e-mail.
“My teammates were post-graduate scholars, Phi Beta Kappas, Radcliffe Leadership Award Winners, led community groups at Phillips Brooks House, were prefects and tutors. Out of the 17 women I played with, 12 have post-graduate degrees. I think that the Harvard community was a better place because we were a part of it.”
Orleans, the executive director of the Ivy League, said the Ivy presidents have long wrestled with the issues raised by Bowen’s books, even before they existed. The Ivy League first reduced recruiting numbers in 1993, eight years before The Game of Life.
“What’s important to us is that we’re trying to do the right thing whether the books were written or not,” Orleans said. “There’s been a sense in some reports that it’s the books that have driven the Ivy presidents, which I think is not true—it’s their own independent sense of responsibility to respond to any developments in the league.”
Bowen said he is aware that the books don’t necessarily drive changes in policy, like the recent reductions in recruits and implementation of forced rest rules.
“Would that have occurred in any case?” Bowen said. “Maybe, who can say? Certainly the presidents with whom we’ve spoken credit the evidence, the facts in the book.”
—Staff writer David B. Rochelson can be reached at email@example.com.
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