Though hundreds of members of the Class of 2020 have suited up for Harvard’s 42 varsity athletic teams during their time at the College, more than one in four athletes ended up quitting their teams, according to online roster data.
Roughly 27 percent of current seniors — 83 out of 308 — who played a varsity sport at some point in their time at Harvard did not play for that team this academic year, according to The Crimson’s analysis. These 308 students include both recruited athletes and “walk-ons,” who joined a varsity team after gaining admission to the College.
Teams experiencing the highest rates of attrition — at least fifty percent — include women’s lightweight crew and men’s soccer. At the other end of the spectrum, field hockey and men’s basketball had perfect retention. Attrition rates were similar for men’s and women’s teams overall, roughly 28 percent for men and 25 percent for women.
Though Ivy League schools do not usually release athlete attrition statistics online, Brown University’s athletics director told the school’s newspaper in 2016 that roughly thirty percent of athletes quit their sport at Brown.
Ten former Harvard athletes in the Class of 2020 interviewed for this article described a host of factors that led them to leave their respective teams — including injuries, mental health concerns, academic and extracurricular interests, and a diminished love for their sport.
Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise wrote in an emailed statement that athletics are one of many opportunities the College offers its students and that his department supports student-athletes as they navigate Harvard.
"Athletic participation helps our students grow, learn, and enjoy themselves while they use and develop their personal, physical, and intellectual skills at Harvard,” he wrote. “[Athletics] should never be the sole reason an individual decides to attend the College. Student-Athletes must have the freedom to explore all the extracurricular and academic opportunities Harvard has to offer.”
Scalise added that he thinks a student’s decision to stay on a varsity team is a “personal one” and that his department aims to support athletes’ choices.
Scalise and Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane did not directly comment on the attrition data.
Nine former athletes said playing a sport for Harvard came at a substantial cost — one that they ultimately viewed as not worthwhile.
Former men’s volleyball player Erik R. Johnsson ’20 — one of two in the senior class to quit the team — said he could not justify the “20 to 25 hours” he was spending on his sport each week.
“Most athletes don't come expecting to quit at some point. But once the sheer amount of opportunity that Harvard kids get in particular kind of sets in, I think that the calculation changes a little bit,” he said.
Former football player Devin C. Judd ’20 also said he missed out on other college experiences because of his sport’s time commitment. He said he fell out of love with the game of football during his first two years on Harvard’s team. Judd said a series of injuries ultimately prompted him to step off the gridiron for good.
In the Class of 2020, 11 out of 28 members of the football team ended up quitting the team. Football, which fields the largest team at Harvard, had the greatest number of athletes who dropped their sport, though it ranked ninth percentage-wise for the Class of 2020.
Despite his passion for football, Judd said he was still “a little shocked” by the demanding expectations he felt as a student-athlete.
“I always heard how Division I sports is like a full time job,” he said. “It's something you can't really understand until you experience it.”
Though many coaches tout Harvard’s top academics to attract athletic recruits, some former student-athletes said athletics interfered with their education.
Former women’s hockey player Kyra J. Colbert ’21 said juggling academic and athletic obligations hindered her performance in both arenas and contributed to poor mental and physical health.
Twice a week during the fall of her sophomore year, Colbert said she had regular late-night meetings with her lab partners followed by early-morning weightlifting and practice. As a result, Colbert said she often got insufficient sleep and took caffeine pills to try to compensate.
“It was just a really bad experience and I was very, very unhappy. I wasn't doing well in school and I wasn't really competing well because I was just pulled too thin,” she said.
Former softball player Lindey M. Kneib ’20 said she felt isolated after she was sidelined by injuries.
“It just got really dark,” she said.
Kneib said she ultimately quit the team so she could have “one year that I'm actually happy at Harvard.”
Though she quit the team, Kneib said she has positive memories of playing softball at Harvard. She commended the University’s efforts to tailor mental health resources to student-athletes’ needs, and said her coaches and teammates valued her health over her athletic performance. Kneib also described the euphoria she felt winning the Ivy League championship her junior year.
Johnsson also described competing in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year as a college experience he will never forget.
Though Johnsson, a recruited athlete, said he believes volleyball got him into Harvard, he said he did not feel obligated to stay on the team once he no longer found it fulfilling.
“I don't feel bad that I'm not participating in the thing that eventually got me into the school because I found other ways to contribute to Harvard,” he said.
The data includes the 308 current and former student-athletes who entered Harvard as part of the Class of 2020 whose names appeared on an Athletics Department roster published in the 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019, or 2019-2020 academic years. The data included all athletes, both recruits and walk-ons.
To gather data for this article, The Crimson cross-referenced the four years of rosters, which are available on the Athletics Department website. The Crimson adjusted individual data points when interviews indicated that names were incorrectly included or omitted on the rosters.
Students whose names appeared on rosters for multiple teams were counted only once in the total number of students. Students whose names disappeared from and then returned to rosters were not counted among students who quit.