The Priority of Academics

Recruiting for the basketball team has gone too far

Harvard has not won a championship in basketball for many decades. But our reputation for academic rigor, high admissions standards, and integrity is far older than our basketball team. In a story published last Sunday, the New York Times laid out evidence that suggests that recently-hired men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker may be undermining that tradition in order to improve his team. While we do not believe that Amaker’s actions reflect seriously lowered academic standards, the story raises troubling questions about the new hire, particularly with regards to potential violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules.

Former Harvard coaches have accused Amaker of lowering the team’s academic standards for recruited athletes. Such accusations should be taken seriously, for Harvard is first and foremost an academic institution, not part of an athletic farm system. Sacrificing the reputation of the school to boost the reputation of the basketball sends the wrong message: Harvard is right to be proud of its team’s academic index, which is currently higher than all other Ivy League schools.

That being said, while the very appearance of lower standards is damaging to Harvard’s reputation, the specific allegations do not seem to demonstrate significantly compromised academic standards in recruits. First, as Harvard’s spokesmen have emphasized, none of the students in question have been admitted yet. Second, while the players being wooed may represent a lowering of Harvard’s traditional standards, Harvard could still easily end up with the highest average academic index in the league. Finally, only one of the recruited players does not fulfill the minimum requirement for Ivy League athletes as of now, and he did not receive a likely letter. There is no indication that Amaker intends to break any of the rules of the Ivy League. Though targeting players with moderately lower grades and SAT scores seems an unfortunate sacrifice, we hope that Amaker’s strategy will not compromise Harvard’s reputation.

The potential violations of NCAA recruiting rules, on the other hand, are more troubling. The Times article recounted stories of Amaker’s relentless tactics—such as approaching a potential recruit’s father in a grocery store—which indicate an over-aggressive approach that reflects poorly on the University. The actions of Amaker’s top assistant, Kenny Blakeney, who, right before being officially hired by Harvard, crossed state lines to play basketball with a recruit, seem to violate the spirit if not the letter of NCAA rules. While the results of the NCAA’s and Harvard’s investigations into the matters cannot be predicted, the recruiting clearly went too far and put the reputation of the University at risk.

While not all of Amaker’s actions described by the Times deserve condemnation, his general pattern of behavior is troubling. Certainly, Harvard should strive for excellence in athletic as well as academic pursuits, but the latter must always take precedence, and the team should ultimately defer to the greater interests of the University. Whether this requires keeping standards above a certain level, or scaling back on aggressive recruiting to remain beyond reproach, Amaker has a responsibility that is greater than the need to win.