Balancing act: athletics and academics in the Ivies

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In mid-February, the Ivy League lost two men’s basketball first-team All-Ivy candidates.

On Feb. 10, following a 72-68 loss to Yale, Harvard was deflated further when coach Frank Sullivan announced that senior point guard Patrick Harvey was academically ineligible to compete the rest of the season.

Ten days later, Princeton forward Spencer Gloger suffered the same fate. In a statement from Princeton University, head coach John Thompson said, “I’m extremely disappointed for Spencer [Gloger], but we will move on.”

The Gloger and Harvey high-profile struggles to balance Ivy League academics and athletics coincide with the Ivy League Council of Presidents’ bid to de-emphasize athletics, though some officials are more hesitant to establish a link between the two situations than others.

“An important part of the Ivy experience is that Ivy student-athletes take personal responsibility for balancing their academic and athletic goals, and for achieving in each area, and I think the record demonstrates that they generally assume that responsibility very well,” Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans said.



Weighing academics and athletics

Academics and athletics always have been difficult to balance in college.

Princeton basketball player Kyle Wente said the inability to rest from classwork, especially in the Ivy League, poses a challenge.

“It only takes a few weeks of carelessness to put a serious dent in previous accomplishments,” he said.

Other athletes find the intensity of Division I sports to cause problems in the classroom.

“It makes a difference being at a Division III school,” Tiffany Griesenbeck, a soccer player from Southwestern University said. “Our coach knows that we are here to get an education, and he accepts that. He wants us to work hard for soccer, but he knows that school comes first. I don’t know if that is always the case with Division I coaches.”

Only 54 percent of male and 69 percent of female Division I athletes graduate, despite the assistance of tutors and the possibility of redshirting to earn an extra school year. By contrast, 75 percent of full-time freshman non-athletes finish college within five years, according to study reported in a March 16 Buffalo News article.

But at Yale and elsewhere around the Ivy League, the numbers are different, making Harvey’s situation at Harvard an anomaly. Harvey, also placed on academic probation in 2002, may not receive his degree. Currently, Harvey is petitioning to finish school, but his collegiate sports career is over.

“Graduation rates for varsity athletes [at Yale] are equal or higher than non-athletes,” Calhoun College Dean Stephen Lassonde said.

Because the Ivy League focuses on academics and does not offer athletic scholarships, many see the Ancient Eight as different from the rest of Division I. In fact, the usual complaint of Eli sports teams is the lack of crowd support and not classwork.

“The student athletes that get accepted to Yale know how important academics are,” Yale men’s basketball coach James Jones said. “I don’t feel like I need to tell them anything else to remind them. That’s why we have 100 percent graduation rate for basketball.”

At Yale, coaches keep close tabs on their players’ academics performances throughout the year.

“Student athletes sign a wavier to get their grades released to coaches,” Jones said. “Most student-athletes’ grades we can see, but some we cannot. When we have breaks in the action during the season, we talk about keeping up with school work.”

Last spring, after noticing the freshman lightweight crew’s low cumulative GPA, then-assistant coach Mike Irwin –now the University of Pennsylvania’s head coach — made his freshmen rowers attend a mandatory study hall each day during spring training in Florida, Dennis Hong ’05 said.

Hong is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.



Fail-safes

At some Division I schools with large athletic programs, fail-safes, such as team-assigned tutors or mandatory study hall during sports season, exist for student-athletes.

At Pennsylvania State University, student athletes are assigned to eight hours of study hall a week during the first semester of freshman year. Beyond the first term, each coach can assign study hall hours at his discretion. Penn State athletes also have team academic advisors who monitor players closely.

“We are very watched over and guided through our academic life; sometimes people come to check if we are in class and such,” said Lauren Fisch, a sophomore lacrosse player at Penn State. “Our academic counselors are really great and strict and are the core of our academic lives. It’s pretty hard to fail.”

The Ivy League has no such fail-safes in place, and Orleans said he would not favor such an option.

“Each of our institutions can provide for its own students much more helpfully than any uniform approach would,” he said.

In the mid-1990s, Yale began a checkout laptop program to offer athletes a computer to take to road athletic contests. As more and more students began arriving on campus with their own laptops, the program became obsolete.

But the recent surge in Ivy League basketball’s competitiveness, along with Harvey and Glogers’ academic troubles, have resurfaced the debate about the need for fail-safes in the Ancient Eight. But men’s basketball captain Chris Leanza ’03 does not see the need.

“It may be a good idea to monitor players’ academic performance, and if it is becoming sub-par then instituting a mandatory study hall may be very beneficial,” Leanza said. “However, most athletes at Ivy League institutions are not slackers. It may be a serious waste of time for a good student to have to attend a study hall and not get anything done.”

Alai Nuualiitia, a senior first team All-Ivy basketball forward from Brown, supports the idea of having a team tutor.

“A tutor could be in constant contact with the teachers, explaining when we have trips, what days we would miss, maybe even getting the assignment or the lecture notes from them on the days that we would,” he said. “That would help a tremendous amount.”

In New Haven, Yale’s residential college program plays a key role in helping student-athletes balance sports and classes.

“The system at Yale with the deans and masters and how hard our athletic director, Tom Beckett, has worked to foster the relationship between our world and theirs makes providing the chance to be great in both areas for the student athletes at Yale a reasonable goal,” field hockey head coach Ainslee Lamb said.



Success on the field and off the field

Even without any clear fail-safe system, some Ivy League athletes achieve both academic and athletic success.

“Many athletes earn high academic distinction: Harvard’s Hana Peljto was both Ivy Player of the Year in women’s basketball and a first-team Academic All-American,” Orleans said.

And in February, 12 members of Yale’s ECAC champion field hockey team were named to the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Academic Squad. Over 50 percent of the Eli roster made the academic honors list.

“It’s easy to treat class-work as a priority when your entire team shares that same mindset,” Francesca Gardner ’04, field hockey’s 2003 captain said. “Obviously, it’s a great challenge to train and compete at your highest level while balancing a heavy academic schedule, but that’s a challenge the team has found a successful way to overcome.”

Steve Conn, the Directory of Sports Publicity, said approximately 25 to 35 student-athletes at Yale are recognized for academic excellence each season. And academic troubles such as those of Harvey and Gloger are a rarity.

When Dartmouth’s swim program was cut last fall because of budget restrictions, Big Green swimmers used their excellent academic record as fodder during reinstatement talks.

“The men’s swimming team has finished in the top five nationally in team GPAs ever since my present coach began his career at Dartmouth 10 years ago,” team captain Paul Schned said. “The goal of an Ivy League institution is to boast diversity and academic excellence. Cutting a program that has constantly proven itself academically seems puzzling and would seem to me to override any athletic mediocrity.”

With alumni donations, the Big Green successfully reinstated its swimming program.



De-emphasizing athletics

Dartmouth’s attempt to eliminate its swim program came amidst the Ancient Eight’s overall drive to reduce the role of athletics. A decision made at Ivy League Council’s June 17, 2002 meeting now restricts Ivy League athletes from formal training with coaches for seven weeks each school year. That meeting also reduced football recruits by an average of five per year to 30, beginning with the Class of 2007.

The Ivy League’s de-emphasis of athletics coincides with the NCAA’s recent push under its new president to raise academic standards for athletes.

“I take as my first principle the conviction that intercollegiate athletics must be integrated into the academic mission of colleges and universities,” NCAA President Myles Brand said at a January press conference.

While Orleans is in support of the league’s efforts to de-emphasize athletics, he does not see the Harvey and Gloger situations as impetus for further changes.

“I don’t think we should try to construct policy from individual cases,” Orleans said. “Rather than either emphasizing or de-emphasizing from individual cases, we should be trying constantly to find the level of athletic activity that lets our students achieve academic success as well as athletic success, knowing that every individual will have an individual outcome.”

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