‘A’ Game: How Harvard Recruits its Student-Athletes

While some have raised concerns about Harvard’s ability to recruit top athletes without name, image, and likeness collectives, others have begun to ask a larger question: should Harvard be recruiting at all?
By Xinyi (Christine) Zhang
By S. Mac Healey, Matan H. Josephy, and Jo B. Lemann

A week before Commencement in Cambridge, Ivy League admissions officials, including Harvard Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, met in New York to discuss athletic recruitment.

The meeting was an annual event — but this year, they had a lot to talk about. The Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling on the NCAA’s Name, Image, and Likeness rules, and its 2023 decision to strike down affirmative action have changed the nationwide landscape of both athletic recruitment and college admissions.

Ivy League recruitment has long operated differently from other athletics programs, with no athletic scholarship or guaranteed admission for recruits.

Now, two prominent Harvard basketball players have entered the NCAA’s transfer portal. One of them — Malik O. Mack ’27 — announced his commitment to Georgetown, where he is expected to earn up to high six-figures from their booster-funded NIL collective, a booster-funded group that pays student athletes but is not affiliated with the school.

These moves reflect the fears that NCAA rule changes incentivizing transfers could hurt Harvard’s recruitment and retention efforts.

College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in a statement that while NIL and transfer portal rules are causing “great change and instability across Division I,” Harvard remains committed to “attracting high caliber student-athletes, without financial inducements, and adhering to the Ivy principle that athletics is aligned with the educational purpose of the institution, remains unwavering.”

While some have raised concerns about Harvard’s ability to recruit top athletes, others have begun to ask a larger question: should Harvard be recruiting at all?

Recent research by Harvard professors explains that recruitment at elite colleges can explain nearly a quarter of the boost that families from the 1 percent receive in admissions. A 2021 Crimson survey of the freshman class showed that 83 percent of recruited athletes that year were white, compared to 53 percent of the class.

In an October interview with The Crimson, McDermott indicated that Harvard Athletics had no plan to update their recruitment process.

While the changing landscape of college admissions has raised questions about the future of athletic recruitment, faculty, donors, alumni, and students have voiced their support or alternative visions for the future.

The Broken Leg Test

By the time thousands of students around the world begin their applications to Harvard and other Ivies, athletic recruitment is already in full swing.

Coaches might spend years identifying prospective Harvard athletes, and the summer before the athlete’s upcoming admissions cycle, review the academic profiles of potential recruits with admissions officers.

Players can “verbally” commit to an Ivy prior to being offered admission, but the Ivy League’s website specifies that this “is not an offer of admission.”

Palumbo wrote that coaches work with the Admissions Office to identify potential recruits, though he noted that “admission decisions are made by the Admissions Office.”

“Coaches spend many hours evaluating and communicating with prospective student-athletes who are of the highest caliber both academically and athletically,” Palumbo wrote.

Athletes apply and receive their official decisions on the typical timeline, although athletes with time-bound offers at other institutions can request accelerated indications of interest.

Harvard basketball player Malik O. Mack '27 will transfer to Georgetown University to take advantage of their name, image, and likeness collective.
Harvard basketball player Malik O. Mack '27 will transfer to Georgetown University to take advantage of their name, image, and likeness collective. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

The admissions committee often meets throughout October, after which likely letters are sent early to athletes informing them of their status, according to a person with direct knowledge of admissions practices.

Consideration of athletes’ qualifications often wavers between athletic and academic — such as the “broken leg test.”

If a recruited athlete “breaks her leg in five places and never plays, is she still someone whom you’ll be excited about?” Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, said in an interview with The Crimson. “The answer has to be yes.”

Ivy League admissions deans meet annually in order to ensure athletic competitiveness across the League while maintaining academic standards, according to multiple people familiar with the League’s recruitment practices.

Admissions officers across the League have historically made use of an ‘Academic Index’ — a number ranging from 60 to 240 based on standardized test scores and grades — to determine recruits’ academic ability.

League-wide rules require that teams’ AI average not be less than one standard deviation from the campus-wide mean and limit the number of athletes allowed to be taken with averages one or two standard deviations below a school’s mean.

‘Mathematicians Don’t Get a Likely Letter’

The Faculty Standing Committee on Athletic Sports helps advise on athletes’ academic experiences, on issues ranging from scheduling conflicts to advising structures.

But committee member and Human Evolutionary Biology Chair Daniel E. Lieberman ’86 said “Harvard Athletics has become too focused on being really competitive within Division I.” He added that “thankfully, faculty don’t have that much oversight.”

“This may be heresy,” he added, “but I think our main goal is to beat Yale, not to beat Stanford.”

Lieberman — who noted his strong support for the role of athletics at Harvard — still had concerns about recruitment policies, such as the frequency of likely letters.

“Really brilliant mathematicians don’t get a likely letter,” Lieberman said.

“I think that all the Ivy League presidents need to get together, hold hands, and agree that the system needs revising,” he said.

Professor Daniel E. Lieberman, a member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Athletic Sports, said Harvard needs to rethink its athletic recruitment practices.
Professor Daniel E. Lieberman, a member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Athletic Sports, said Harvard needs to rethink its athletic recruitment practices. By Julian J. Giordano

History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, another member of the committee, said the end of affirmative action raised other questions for admissions offices.

“There’s a much bigger question,” Jasanoff said, “about the place of athletic recruiting as a privileged channel of admissions in the Ivy League.”

Germanic Languages and Literatures Chair Alison Frank Johnson echoed concerns over diversity amongst recruited athletes, but said an “awareness of that problem has led to some really wonderful programs for trying to increase the availability of sports.”

Johnson also dismissed criticisms over athletes’ academic performance.

“I can’t say that the presence of recruited athletes has diminished my experience of teaching at Harvard in any way,” she said. “I’ve had really positive experiences.”

‘People Don’t Lose That Sense of Pride’

Lawrence G. Cetrulo ’71 — former co-captain of the Harvard Fencing team — has a history with Harvard Athletics that traces the path of athletic recruitment.

Cetrulo came to Harvard in a group of four fencers who were, by his account, likely the first fencing recruits. Since 1984, Cetrulo has led the Friends of Harvard Fencing, an alumni group that organizes donations and events to support the team.

In 2022, the bribery trial of a former Harvard fencing coach and parent showed the increasingly high stakes brought to athletic recruitment. Cetrulo testified that the Friends group’s support amounted to more than 50 percent of the fencing team’s funding.

The Friends groups work closely with the Harvard Varsity Club — an organization of alumni and donors where Andy Freed ’90 served as president from 2013 to 2016 — to support Harvard Athletics.

Freed noted that this support, and, more broadly, former student-athletes’ loyalty to Harvard, stem directly from their involvement in their teams.

“There’s a couple differences between athletes and just another kind of student,” he said.

Harvard Athletics is headquartered in the Murr Center.
Harvard Athletics is headquartered in the Murr Center. By Timothy R. O'Meara

“It’s kind of an incredible moment of pride to put on a Harvard uniform,” he added. “I think that what you see in terms of our donor base for athletics is that people don’t lose that sense of pride.”

Alumni donations remain critical for improving student athlete experiences and keeping Harvard competitive.

“College sports everywhere have upped their game,” Freed said, “I think Harvard has always tried to stay competitive within the Ivy League.”

But Freed applauded the Athletics Department’s adherence to Harvard’s core mission.

“They’re extraordinary students and extraordinary leaders in so many ways,” he said. “I think that’s something that Harvard remains committed to.”

‘You’ve Got a Harvard Degree’

For K. Graham Blanks ’25 — the defending NCAA men’s Cross Country national champion — athletics can bring some of the school spirit that Harvard seems to lack.

“Harvard does have a long tradition of sports,” Blanks said. “I do think it’s something that can bring the school pride.”

Blanks also said recruited athletes bring unique qualities as applicants, and questioned if a college should be simply an educational institution.

“I think what makes college what it is, is you bring in a diverse group of people who are coming to a school to learn and to experience and to grow. And I think athletes are just one part of that.”

Still, Blanks noted that the admissions process was “a little bit stressful” because of the particularities of the Ivy League — calling Harvard’s lack of athletic scholarships a “massive disadvantage.”

Blanks, who described his recruitment process as “very objective.” went on official visits to three schools: Harvard, Columbia University, and Georgetown.

Blanks’ decision came despite some reservations about Harvard’s inability to guarantee admission to athletic recruits.

“It was scary for me, because I had to cut off all these other teams to commit to Harvard and I wasn’t even positive that I would get in,” Blanks said.

Harvard Athletic Director Erin McDermott has made the value of a Harvard degree a centerpeice of her recruitment pitch.
Harvard Athletic Director Erin McDermott has made the value of a Harvard degree a centerpeice of her recruitment pitch. By Emily T. Schwartz

Per Ivy League policy, a coach also “may not require a candidate to refrain from visiting or applying to other schools, or to withdraw applications to other schools, as a condition for support during the admissions process.”

Matthew Linsky ’26, a fencer at Harvard, said he’s heard “horror stories” of people not getting in after verbally committing. However, Linsky noted that these cases are the exception.

“Usually the coach’s word is very solid because they’re always in communication with the school,” Linsky said.

For Klara Barbic ’27, an international student and runner at Harvard, the risk of a verbal commitment wasn’t clear until after the process ended.

“Some things weren’t explained well in the recruiting process,” Barbic said.

Barbic noted that part of Harvard’s appeal was its financial aid offerings not being tied to athletic performance, as opposed to an athletic scholarship which could be revoked if a player is no longer on the team.

Ben L.H. Rosa ’25, another runner, emphasized the value of a Harvard education: “if you get injured at Harvard, you’ve got a Harvard degree,” Rosa said.

Harvard’s prestigious degree and strong alumni connections are a signature part of their recruiting pitch. In an April interview with The Crimson, McDermott called Harvard a “40 year opportunity, not a four year opportunity.”

Almost forty years after he joined the men’s water polo team, Freed remembers Harvard Athletics fondly.

“I learned more on the other side of the river than I did on the Cambridge side of the river in my four years,” he said.

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at mac.healey@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached matan.josephy@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at jo.lemann@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @Jo_Lemann.

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