Yale, Princeton, Penn, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, Brown and Harvard — this is the Ivy League, the Ancient Eight, the place where the hopes of so many anxious and ambitious high school seniors rest. It is the holy grail of academia, the Elite Eight, the veritable Ivory Tower.
But as even the most academically inclined prefrosh soon discovers, even here — far from the plains of South Bend, 650 miles north of Cameron and three time zones away from the Rose Bowl — there are sports.
Most shocking of all for the uninitiated — those who grew up on Georgia basketball or Texas football or other, similarly televised events — is the fact that here, in the academic heartland of America, a balance is being struck. Here, we have real student-athletes.
In the Ivy League, our teams are not simply “intramural” programs. League teams regularly win national championships in sailing, crew and squash. Yale, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton and Cornell compete in perhaps the toughest Division I hockey league in the country, the ECAC. Ivy teams often perform well in the NCAA championships for lacrosse, soccer and even basketball. In the Ivy League, college athletics are for the most part done right.
But not everyone would agree. Much has been made in recent years of the role of athletics in academic life. “Reclaiming the Game,” William Bowden and Sarah Levin’s oft-discussed 2003 book on student-athletes at top schools, presented statistics that showed that recruited athletes are admitted with lower GPAs and SAT scores and perform worse academically during college, even at Ivies like Yale and Princeton. In a now notorious Yale Daily News column a month after the book was printed, Jessamyn Blau ’05 argued that Yale should not only eliminate admissions preferences for athletes, but also disregard any other non-academic talent.
While the Ivy group is unlikely to adopt Blau’s suggestion, it was quick to respond to “Reclaiming the Game” and the related hue and cry, taking a number of steps that included reducing the number of football recruits it allowed from 35 to 30 and instituting a seven-week “dead time” for every sport during which teams cannot practice.
The league’s reaction to the book is a perfect example of how things are going right in the Ancient Eight. While Bowden, a former president of Princeton, and Sarah Levin, Yale president Richard Levin’s daughter, are anything but Ivy outsiders, it’s notable that their suggestions weren’t simply brushed aside. Other leagues might have made excuses or purely symbolic changes, but the Ivy League made a change — the dead time — that directly affects the lives of student-athletes. These schools’ commitment to academics is not just words.
Bowden and Levin’s work presented several disturbing statistics, but the statistics on the other side are just as strong. While many Ivy League athletes may graduate in the bottom third of their class, they graduate at the highest rates in the country – and, more importantly, at rates equal to their non-athlete peers. While just graduating their athletes seems too tough a task for some NCAA schools, Ivy League athletes graduate from Ivy League schools with little or no special preference, in class or out, an accomplishment in and of itself.
Because no Ancient Eight school offers athletic scholarships, the group of students that end up in the Palestra and Coxe Cage are of a different breed than their Big Ten or SEC-bound peers. The group is self-selecting, and one would be hard-pressed to find many athletes at Yale or any other Ivy school who do not care for things academic. Athletes who are not also academically successful rarely come here. They can’t get in, because there’s a mandated minimum level of high-school achievement that applies to every sport at every Ivy League school. Even the minimum academic standards for recruited athletes at Yale or Cornell would be too tough for many athletes at other Division I schools.
Ivy athletics also benefit from the fact that neither too few nor too many of the students are athletes. At small liberal arts colleges like Williams or Bowdoin, upwards of 40 percent of all students are athletes, while at huge state schools like Michigan, the number is under one percent. The 15 to 25 percent range that prevails at Ivy League schools means that athletes are a presence on campus without overwhelming the rest of the student body or becoming isolated celebrity figures.
If collegiate athletics are sick, the Ivy League is leading the way to the cure. With no scholarships, a truly academic focus, sky-high graduation rates and a reasonably-sized role in campus life, the Ivy League is, academically, the class of the NCAA. This is not to say that Yale and its peers shouldn’t be working to further ease the tension between being a student and being an athlete. On the contrary, the league should continue to set an example for reform. But we fans of Ivy League sports can be thankful that here, at least, college athletics are done right.
After all, the greatest thing about Ivy League athletics is the league itself. Because our Bulldogs play schools with similar academic values, similar recruiting policies and similar student bodies, competition in almost every sport is on a very high level — enjoyable for the athlete and spectator alike. That Harvard could go undefeated in football one year and lose to Cornell the next is a great example of the parity that exists in so many Ivy League sports. The balance in the league brings out some of the best things about collegiate athletics, that the team that fights harder can beat the more talented opponent, that even Ivy basketball games can come down to a few crucial foul shots, and that a women’s soccer player can win an epic game (such as the one against Princeton just weeks ago) and sit next to you in your hardest class on Monday, maybe grinning a little too much, but still all ears.
Nick Baumann is a senior in Morse College and a former Sports Editor for the News.