Finding a home for athletics on academic turf

Yale doesn’t usually pay much attention to the Dartmouth football team — and given the Big Green’s 1-9 record last fall, it isn’t hard to see why. But in the past month, Dartmouth football has unexpectedly found itself at the center of a controversy with implications that stretch into the rest of the Ivy League.

The uproar began in December, when a New Hampshire paper revealed that Dartmouth Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg had written a letter four years ago to the president of Swarthmore College commending Swarthmore’s decision to drop its football team. After the story broke, Furstenberg and other Dartmouth administrators quickly moved to counter the negative publicity, saying Dartmouth would not cut football and that the letter did not reflect the true feelings of its administration or even Furstenberg. But the damage was done — angry alumni threatened to cut off donations, while others in the Dartmouth community called for Furstenberg’s resignation.

From a public relations perspective, Furstenberg’s letter was a disaster. Yet his now-retracted statements — particularly the claim that “sadly football, and the culture that surrounds it, is antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours” — at least deserve our consideration. Is it really true that football, or perhaps even all recruiting for varsity athletes, cannot coexist with the educational rigor of Yale and other elite universities?

Our first reaction to Furstenberg’s letter is that it failed to recognize exactly how Ivy League schools have attempted to strike a balance between rigorous academic standards and competitive athletics. At Swarthmore, maintaining a football team of 50 players was unrealistic in a school of only 1,450 undergraduates. Meanwhile, at the largest Division I schools — the Ohio States and the Oklahomas of the world — the term “student-athlete” is little more than a joke when college life is so vastly different for players in the highest-profile sports and their classmates. In contrast, the central vision that underpins the Ivy League is not just that athletics and the rest of Yale can coexist; it’s that athletics can actually make the rest of Yale better.

Yet Furstenberg’s letter — even if we disagree with its primary contention — still invites us to ask how successful Yale has been in achieving that vision. For Yale, recruiting varsity athletes, even those whose test scores or high school GPAs are lower than the average Yale student’s, is justified because those students are seen as making a distinct contribution to the Yale community. But the same can be said for concert pianists, ballet dancers or stand-up comedians — none of whom are actively recruited to the same degree as athletes. In either case, the University must carefully consider how much of a premium it places on enrolling students with these extracurricular talents, even when it means some who are slightly more gifted inside the classroom get rejected as a result. Beyond that, Yale must ensure it maintains an environment where student-athletes are encouraged and expected to perform equally well in both their roles.

Football, and athletic recruiting, are here to stay — and for good reason. But as unpopular as he may be in some Hanover circles these days, Karl Furstenberg revealed a fundamental challenge with which the Ivies will always need to grapple.