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Are Jocks Necessary?

The Amaker affair invites reflections on recruiting

[CORRECTION APPENDED]

Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker has come under fire this week for supposedly dubious recruiting practices. According to an article published Sunday in the New York Times, despite the fact that Harvard’s team has won only eight out of 28 games this season, six potential members of its incoming recruiting class are among the nation’s 25 most promising prep-players. This sudden shift in the team’s ability to attract a deep talent pool raises questions. The Ivy League announced Tuesday that it will launch an investigation. [See correction below]

The news comes less than a year after Amaker was hired by Harvard Athletics to turn around the lackluster basketball program. Amaker’s hiring was a coup for Harvard. In addition to having held an assistant-coaching position at Duke, his alma matter, the hotshot coach had held head-coaching positions at Seton Hall and Michigan before arriving at the College on the Charles.

But now Amaker’s star is fading fast. In addition to recruiting players with lower Academic Indexes (the calculator used by the Ivy League to ensure that high academic standards are not compromised), the Times reported that one of his assistant coaches made visits to potential athletes before the official recruiting season had begun. Amaker himself is said to have approached the parents of an athlete in a grocery store, urging them to consider Harvard for their son.

That Amaker may have engaged in shady recruiting practices is worrisome (and certainly worth investigation). However, that issue aside, the affair raises more interesting questions about the nature of Harvard athletic recruiting practices: Does a strong athletic department enhance the culture of a competitive college? Should Harvard, a college that prides itself on rigorous academic standards, make compromises for the sake of a winning sports teams?

From a practical fundraising standpoint, the answer may be yes—having a strong athletics program enhances development opportunities. Surprisingly, Harvard boasts the largest NCAA Division I athletics program in the country (larger than Stanford or any state school), and this is something in which many alumni take pride. The need for sports as a component of development is reinforced by historical memory from other colleges. In the forties, when Big Ten member University of Chicago dropped its football team and withdrew from the conference, donations to the college plunged. The school later reinstated its football team and became a Division III member of another NCAA conference.

In today’s world of recruiting, coaches like Tommy Amaker face a challenge: Harvard can be a tough sell for a student who is being recruited by colleges outside the Ivies that will pay athletes to come. Coaches’ successes depend on their ability to attract these sorts of players. Appealing to talented players for whom, sports aside, Harvard would not otherwise be an option is one attractive path. There’s another, less talked-about problem too. Athletes who feel a weaker connection to Harvard outside of sports are more likely to stay dedicated to their sport. Therefore, relying exclusively on recruiting the academically qualified is potentially problematic, since many of these students abandon their sport in college in order to pursue the endless non-athletic opportunities Harvard makes available.

The frequency with which the latter phenomenon occurs could suggest that the business of competitive college athletics is incompatible with a rigorous academic environment. Some argue that a reason to admit academically dubious athletes is that they tend to possess a deep discipline for their sport and this is grit we can learn from. Yet mediocre athletes can be highly disciplined too—athletic talent is not absolutely correlated with discipline for the sport.

The reality is that in order to stay afloat in the hypercompetitive NCAA recruiting game, Harvard increasingly will be forced to severely compromise its academic standards. Worse still, it is unlikely that Harvard will ever be able to reduce its standards to a great enough extent that athletics will improve dramatically. In other words, athletics would marginally improve while significantly decreasing academic standards. In light of this, there is little reason for Harvard to go to great lengths to cultivate flourishing sports teams.

Given the landscape of college athletics, the dodgy practices of other college athletic departments are ones Harvard would do well to avoid. In determining its institutional priorities, the Harvard community should view athletics in the way it views Greek life. In the case of fraternities and sororities, for instance, there is no problem that they exist at Harvard, but we wouldn’t want to make Greek life a central culture of the University.

Finally, since Harvard commands a large endowment and a great ability to attract the most promising students, the University might use this moment as a way of trying to effect change in the college athletic culture. This is not to say that we should have no athletic program, merely that we should be happy with a mediocre one (that may become excellent organically). Perhaps paradoxically, by accepting mediocrity in this area, Harvard can resume striving for excellence in areas that matter more to us.


Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

CORRECTION:

In her column entitled "Are Jocks Necessary?" that ran on March 7, Lucy M. Caldwell incorrectly stated that six potential members of Harvard's incoming recruiting class of basketball players are among the nation’s 25 top prep-players. In reality, Harvard's approximately 6-member recruiting class was ranked by some as one of the nation's top 25 classes of recruits. The mistake came as a result of the writer's misreading of an article from The New York Times that ran on March 2, 2008 entitled, "In a New Era at Harvard, New Questions of Standards." The Crimson regrets the error.
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