Athletes must be students first

After making modest reforms to its athletic recruitment policies last year, the Council of Ivy Group Presidents this summer made a number of sweeping and appropriate changes to make athletes “more representative of the rest of the class as far as academic potential and performance,” in the words of President Levin. It is a worthwhile goal and one that will help refocus the role of athletics in the Ivy League. Sports on campus should help to build a campus community, to keep alumni connected with the school, and, most fundamentally, to supplement, and not define, students’ college experiences.

The changes range from the largely practical, such as amending a rule requiring 49 practice-free days a year, to the eminently reasonable, including a cap on the number of athletes that can be recruited each year. But we are particularly happy to see that the council paid thoughtful attention to the implications of its academic standards. Among the most significant changes, and perhaps the most important one to the athletic community, extends to all sports a minimum level of achievement in high school that previously applied only to basketball, football and hockey players. The previous policy made basic academic requirements seem like a punishment to the players in the league’s three most popular sports. Now that it applies to everyone, it serves instead as affirmation that Ivy League athletes, just like their classmates, are students first.

The Ivy League is not infected with the same diseases as much of Division I athletics. There have been no scandals with coaches who maneuver their way around the rules, like the University of Washington’s Rick Neuheisel. There have been no recruiting scandals that have seeped all the way to a president’s office, as was the case when St. Bonaventure president Robert Wickenheiser stepped down last spring.

But the league is not immune to the deficiencies of Division I, as some of the great athletes we loved to watch play failed to meet the student part of the student-athlete commitment. Two of the top basketball players in the league, Harvard’s Patrick Harvey and Princeton’s Spencer Gloger, were forced to leave their teams last year for inadequate academic performance. And at Yale, hockey phenom Chris Higgins left to play for the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens after his sophomore season — an understandable decision for him and a regrettable situation for Yale.

Administrators say these factors were not influential in their decision, but they are certainly a reminder that the Ivy League is not free from the excesses that plague college athletics. Some coaches, meanwhile, are understandably nervous that the new rules will only further diminish their abilities to build successful teams. That might happen — but the symbolic and practical gains more than compensate, ending decades of limited reforms and simplifying the often complicated relationship between school and sports in the Ivy League.

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