Looking beyond the surface of the current sports debate

The ongoing debate about the role athletics should play at Yale and in its admission process is a healthy one. At its core are questions about the role this University should seek to play in society and the very purpose of higher education. Our answers to these questions, which have been posed many times before, will as always reflect the beliefs and prejudices of our day.

Right now, beliefs are being changed by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen’s recently-published book, The Game of Life. It provided the public justification (“Football may get fewer admit slots,” 1/28) for the New England Small College Athletic Conference’s (NESCAC) decision to reduce the number of recruited athletes that member schools should be allowed to admit. The Game of Life is now being played at Yale, as the Ivy League is considering whether to follow NESCAC’s lead.

Shulman and Bowen base their analysis on data collected by the Mellon Foundation on the classes of 1951, 1976 and 1989 from 30 schools, including Yale. Their findings, if correct, prove athletics have corrupted some of the most prestigious schools in the United States. Their most serious charge is that athletics dominate not the powerhouses but the smaller, selective schools, where they have fostered a “jock culture” that everyone would be better off without.

The evidence that Shulman and Bowen present is impressive in volume: their book is over 300 pages long. But some of their findings flunk the common sense test. Is it creditable to claim that athletics are less important at Florida State than they are at Bryn Mawr or Oberlin?

There are indeed proportionally more varsity athletes at these selective schools. Shulman and Bowen conclude that the more varsity athletes you admit, the worse the “jock culture” gets. But in spite of their attacks on this “jock culture,” they have made no effort to assess the role athletics actually play at the schools they have studied. In reality, numbers do matter, but so do many other things. Oberlin may admit a higher percentage of varsity athletes, but that does not make it more of a “jock school” than Florida State.

For Shulman and Bowen, the problem with athletics really lies in the athletes themselves, not in the admissions process that supposedly gives them an unfair advantage at the selective schools. According to Shulman and Bowen, activities such as music, debate, or writing for the News reinforce the educational mission, while athletics promote such “jock culture” vices as cheating, being competitive, making money, being conservative, and taking economics classes.

Clearly, one of these is a real problem, but the indictment as a whole gives away Shulman and Bowen’s agenda: universities should admit and train future professors in the humanities and avoid anything that smacks of professionalism. Theirs is, in other words, a vision rooted in an elitist, 19th century conception of higher education.

They make no allowance for the fact that, at least at Yale, many intelligent students arrive as varsity athletes but leave their teams to pursue other interests before they graduate. For Shulman and Bowen, once an athlete, always an athlete. Nor do they have much sympathy for the notion that varsity athletics can teach dedication, commitment, or team-work. In The Game of Life, what matters is what can be measured: the SAT and the GPA. That is a very partial and misleading conception of excellence.

If the Ivy League really wants to address the supposed ills that Shulman and Bowen have discovered, having fewer admit slots for football players is not enough: all varsity sports should be targeted. For my part, I do not believe that Yale College will make its greatest contribution by adopting Shulman and Bowen’s narrow vision. The late Cyrus Vance ’39 LAW ’42 was not just a liberally-educated businessman and national leader. He was also a varsity hockey player. The contradiction between these roles is not as deep as Shulman and Bowen suggest.



Ted Bromund GRD ’96 is a lecturer in History. He is currently teaching History 404b, “Sports in History, 1840-1990.”

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