In April, Harvard got its own entry in college athletics admissions scandals as it began investigating head fencing coach Peter Brand over financial transactions involving current and former members of the fencing team. This news made me uneasy, not because of the scandal itself, but because of how little it seemed to me that the campus reacted to it. Just months before, the court case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, challenging the College’s consideration of race in its admissions process, engulfed the start to my junior year as I worked alongside countless students to prove the importance of diversity and affirmative action. Lawsuits and scandals are not the same, but when the national conversation shifted from affirmative action to recruitment, I realized I could never imagine student athletes feeling obliged to fight for their place at this University as so many students of color have. I wondered why.
As a non-athlete, I know I’m biased. I’ll never know what it’s like to spend a lifetime training in one sport, to learn and grow through playing it, and to work as hard as I can to keep playing it in college – even as a full-time student – because I love the sport so much. Instead, I know what it’s like to be a non-athlete at a university that invests millions into its sports programs, and I feel that, in the context of numerous other meaningful student activities and organizations, Harvard overvalues athletics through disproportionately high funding and athletic recruitment.
Harvard’s athletic recruitment process is not the same as most colleges in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Like other Ivy League schools, Harvard uses an Academic Index to rigorously screen recruits’ academic skill, forgoing Letters of Intent and athletic scholarships in favor of likely letters and need-based financial aid. Harvard also makes sure that every recruit completes the normal application process, with an alumni interview and final vote by the admissions committee.
Still, the special treatment is clear. Harvard spends over $1 million on recruiting athletes, and athletes are admitted at incredibly higher rates than non-athletes with the same academic credentials. Once on campus, Harvard Athletics enjoys a $26 million budget, with particular sports like football and basketball receiving over $2 million in funding.
Why are athletics given this special treatment? To be clear, I know that athletics and student athletes have a place at Harvard. Many student athletes graduated top of their high school class, excel in some of the most challenging concentration courses, and contribute to a caring community at Harvard by volunteering with the Phillips Brooks House Association or working as a Peer Advising Fellow. At the same time though, I know dancers, musicians, scientists, writers, debaters, and activists who also spent countless hours developing their skills in high school, whose work on campus also influences and inspires countless peers, and who were admitted without the help of a formal recruitment process and whose organizations operate without the help of direct University subsidies.
To me, even though sports are valuable, they should not get special treatment.
First, college sports don’t make money and Harvard is no exception. Out of around 1000 schools in the NCAA, only about 20 schools make a profit. For Harvard, the U.S. Department of Education reports that the Athletics Department spent every dollar of its $26 million in revenues. Moreover, Harvard Athletics may actually be losing money since direct funding from Harvard may be counted as revenue — Yale’s Athletics Department has a similar budget to Harvard’s and it counts direct subsidies from the university as revenue.
Second, athletic recruitment unfairly privileges already-advantaged students. Given the sheer competition involved in Harvard admissions, most recruited athletes are still among the best students in the nation. However, The Crimson’s survey of the Class of 2022 found that when comparing recruited athletes to non-athletes, athletes were less likely to be in the top 2 percent of their high school class and more likely to live in a household earning $500,000 or more. The NCAA reported in 2018 that athletes were also more likely to be white. There’s nothing wrong with admitting students with these characteristics, and these are only relative statistics, so they do not describe the majority of recruited athletes. It simply seems unjust to be actively and systematically advantaging these already privileged students by overinvesting in athletics.
Still, even after all this, some might argue that Harvard must invest in athletic recruitment and funding varsity sports programs because athletic excellence is a part of Harvard’s identity. I have no doubt that given the centrality of sports to American culture and identity, athletic excellence strengthens Harvard’s reputation. However, justifying athletic recruitment and funding by saying that athletics are part of Harvard’s identity implies that all those other activities and organizations that it does not recruit for and does not fund are not as important, not as valuable, and not as central to Harvard’s identity. As a student, it hurts to think that Harvard values sports more than the extracurriculars that I love so much. It doesn’t just hurt though. I also earnestly believe that it’s wrong.
The professors and peers I’ve met at Harvard have taught me there are parts of our identities that should be valued, but there are also parts that should be abandoned. Harvard once defined itself as an all-male, all-white, institution, but it has learned to strive for greatness outside of that limited identity. Athletic recruitment brings many amazing students to Harvard’s campus, but that shouldn’t make special treatment for athletics an unquestionable truth. The only chance we have at growing and seeing what athletics and admissions might look like in an even better world is if we step back and evaluate which parts of our identity are worth strengthening and which parts should be grown out of. It’s time for Harvard to leave athletic recruitment and disproportionate funding behind.
Daniel Lu ’20 is a joint concentrator in Physics and Philosophy in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.