Athletics injure Yale’s academic purpose

One day my freshman year, I was reading the news online and happened to mention to my friend that I was excited about the euro. “What is the euro?” she asked. Surprised, I explained that it was the currency of the European Union. “What’s the European Union?” she asked. As I began to fume, the fact that my friend was a recruited athlete — who, incidentally, explained to me later that year how her mother had filled out her Yale application — should not have been the first thing to enter my mind. But it was.

Last month William Bowden and Sarah Levin published “Reclaiming the Game,” in which they present a highly statistical — and not purely anecdotal — argument about the nature of athletics on college campuses today, including Yale and the rest of the Ivy League. The evidence they present is a sobering wake-up call about athletic programs at universities like Yale, and the need for America to reevaluate its priorities in education.

The facts are there: it is not just that the grades of athletes are lower, they are dramatically lower — the average cumulative GPA of recruited athletes places them at approximately the 25th percentile of rank-in-class. Recruited athletes also have lower SAT scores and high school results. Although it is impossible to quantify, the academic level of the university as a whole suffers when all students are not on the same page intellectually. One might argue that the comparatively poor academic performance of athletes is a result of the time spent playing a sport, but, as Bowden and Levin show, recruited athletes post lower grades compared to their walk-on teammates, which suggests that the heavy time commitment is not solely at fault. And this is not surprising given perhaps the most shocking revelation in the book: a recruited athlete is four times more likely to get accepted at Yale than another student. And decreasing the number of recruited athletes — as Ivy League presidents have pledged to do — only increases the chances that coaches will have to push for athletes with greater athletic prowess, likely placing even less emphasis on academic ability.

But one of the most disappointing things about athletes in college is their number. Even now some people would argue that Yale has too many a cappella groups — imagine what people would say about the diversity on campus if over 20 percent of students were in a cappella groups. And yet, for a school the size of Yale to field as many varsity athletic teams as it does, one out of every five students must play, and a majority of these athletes are recruits.

Bowden and Levin agree that something needs to be done. But their proposals are not radical enough to deal with the incongruity of the situation. They suggest, for instance, reducing the number of recruited athletes, adjusting admissions criteria and monitoring academic performance of athletes.ÊThis approach is pragmatic but insufficient and fundamentally inconsistent with the values of this institution. Until athletics are seen as being on par with any other activity, things will continue to be unfair to all other Yale students. The fact of the matter is, whether a person spends one hour a week or 20 hours a week doing something outside of school, that is a personal choice, and no one should get special treatment. The great divide comes when athletics and extracurricular activities are seen as two different things. The choice to participate in a sport should be made in the same way as the choice to play in the marching band or edit the pages of the paper you are reading. The football team would be a lovely addition to the sea of tables on Beinecke Plaza during the Freshman Bazaar.

In fact, athletic prowess — or special talent at any non-curricular endeavor — should play a much smaller role in determining whether to admit a student to Yale. As Bowden and Levin argue, “It would be a mistake — to equate the arguments for admitting a super mathematician with the arguments for admitting a nationally regarded volleyball spiker, given the educational missions of these universities.” The same should be said, ultimately, with regard to an outstanding cellist or student body president.

In 1980, former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti predicted that budgetary realities would lead to a reduction in recruitment. Giamatti would likely be disappointed to see the current state of affairs at Yale. Behind Giamatti’s statement — with which current President Richard Levin would hopefully agree — is the unfortunate truth that the way athletics are treated at Yale and in America today is a sign of a much larger problem: the undervaluation of education and overemphasis on other pursuits.

The mission of Yale College is “to seek exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds — and to educate them, through mental discipline and social experience.” Put bluntly, nowhere in that mission statement is there a mention of developing a good hook shot and competitive spirit. Yale is about education — it is not about football or basketball, or a cappella or the Dramat.

When I decided to attend college in the United States instead of France, where I grew up, it was in no small part because of the atmosphere of the American campus, and particularly the Yale campus. But the abundance of extracurricular commitments that creates this atmosphere is not all good. The stereotypically overcommitted Yale student is likely missing out on the primary purpose of his time at Yale.ÊUltimately, whether we play lacrosse or lead the Yale Political Union, it is discouraging to realize that we don’t always have time for these things. We should remind ourselves of this more often, and the University should assist us by creating a sound policy that values education above all else.

Jessamyn Blau is a junior in Morse College.