(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Great Point from "For Love and Honor" -- Are Ivy League Athletics Hypocritical?

I posted yesterday on this wonderful documentary about Ivy League football, but I neglected to mention one interesting feature of the film, the presence of former Princeton President Bill Bowen. Bowen, as you may recall, published a study regarding Ivy athletics and was very critical of the Ivies' overall approach to athletics. Put simply, Bowen doesn't think a lot of Ivy sports and views recruited athletes as inferior students to those Ivy students who don't play sports. His data proves his hypothesis. Naturally, many who played Ivy sports have howled about Bowen's study, but it's out there, and the producers of the documentary (despite some significant funding from Ivy football alums) were wise (and brave) to feature Bowen and his opinions.

And those opinions raise some tough questions that the Ivies themselves haven't addressed and that might haunt the Ivies for a while. I blogged the other days that I thought the Ivies were hypocritical regarding not permitting their football champion to compete in the Division I-AA playoffs. The reason? Because all other varsity sports get to compete in NCAA tournaments.

Fine. But is it more hypocritical the way the Ivies approach athletics? After all, they're elite universities, it's virtually impossible for your kid to get in there (unless, as Bowen points out, they excel in a sport for which there's a need), and they compete for the best and brightest faculty in the world. Yet, despite their spending on faculty and bricks and mortar, and their lofty fund drives, they insist upon letting in a body of kids who wouldn't get into the place if they didn't play sports, presumably because non-athletes have to have better grades and scores to get into these schools? Is that right? Is it smart? Or could they fare okay if they were to be consistent on the admissions point and consider athletes the same way they consider creative writers and cellists and hold all to the same precise standards? Sure that might mean that they play DIII sports and not Division I-A, but shouldn't that be all right? Or is there something more to the athletic experience that the rest of the eggheads out there are missing?

I joke with friends about how Princeont deploys the statement of one-time Princeton (and U.S.) president Woodrow Wilson, "Princeton in the Nation's Service." I tell my friends that there should be an elliptical asterisk, the footnote to which reads, "Well, it's all well and good for many of you to go into public service, but we need about 5% of each class to pursue as much financial gain as possible -- on Wall Street, in the Silicon Valley, and elsewhere -- so that we can keep the Annual Giving coffers full and continue to raise significant sums for our endowment." Many who help fortify those coffers and endowments enjoyed, the way they tell it, wonderful athletic experiences while on their Ivy campuses, feel grateful for their teammates and the lessons learned while competing at their sports and, as a result, give generously to their alma maters. The irony, of course, is that they may be supporting various programs that have professors who lead them who are disdainful of the Ivy athlete generally and their institution's (over-) emphasis on athletics in particular.

So what should the Ivies do? Should they take Bowen's criticisms to heart and change the way they view athletics? Should they continue business as usual? Or, should they even go the other way and go full-bore into Division I-A in football and basketball, offering scholarships in both revenue sports and re-living the glory days? The latter, of course, is unlikely to happen, and the future is not all that clear. What is clear, today, is that the Ivies are trying to have it both ways with respect to their academic reputations and the way they compete with each other on the playing field. Personally, I'd rather go to a school with a better academic reputation and have a good experience there than if my school wins more games and matches in the Ivies than another. The question is whether most Ivy alums share that view and would continue giving to their schools would the Ivies de-emphasize athletics and make more sense of their admissions policies.

The answer, from my vantage point, is that Ivy presidents and trustees would be surprised, and that a majority of alums (i.e., those who didn't play varsity sports) wouldn't care that much. Those alums, however, may not be as vocal as those who played at the varsity level, and therein lies the conflict. Which means, I guess, that nothing will happen on this point, at least for a while.


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