JANES: A book review of sorts

This week, I decided to delve even deeper into the arguments upon which the calculated destruction of the Yale athletic tradition have been based. Since I have so far been unable to ascertain any concrete outline for those motivations from any sources in Woodbridge Hall, I’ve begun some research regarding potential rational motivations for the policies with which I’ve taken issue.

For all my concerns regarding its approach to athletics, Yale’s administration has done great work in various realms to keep Yale at the top of the world’s university pack: if they’re taking such strong measures regarding athletics, they must feel they have good reason.

Again, in the absence of any primary sourcing regarding what that reason might be, I began to look for potential influences on the stance of the Yale administration. Like any good Yalie, I began at the library and checked out a book published in 2005 called “Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values.” Admittedly, the book was published years after the current policies came into effect. Yet the source of my interest was in its authors, one William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and one Sarah Levin, daughter of Yale’s current president, with three degrees from Harvard and fellowships at Harvard and Penn. The book is a statistically based look at the detrimental effect of college sports on the academic climate of academically selective schools in the Ivy League and NESCAC, and concludes that the place of athletics in these institutions must be thoroughly re-examined for the negative effect it is having on them. The book’s conjectures include ideas regarding limiting the number of recruited athletes, supposed statistical proof that athletes underachieve as part of these university communities, and evidence of a debilitating divide between student and student-athlete in these schools. With arguments based almost entirely on statistics, the book’s points are therefore hard to refute, though it is easy to see manifestations of these ideas in Yale policy.

As far as I can tell, Bowen and Levin’s arguments are similar, if not identical, to those misleading decision-makers in Woodbridge Hall. For multiple reasons, including the sheer drain caused by reading a clinical book about an issue that inspires such a guttural reaction (the place of college sports at the university), and also limited space for print, I will point out only a few main conclusions that I found particularly troublesome. People say the stats don’t lie, especially when written up in an extensive study by someone with three degrees from Harvard and a former president of Princeton. But what can I say, I’ve always loved an underdog story.

Because I’m so limited on what I can discuss, I suggest to everyone that you read this book and draw your own conclusions. But I will here outline a few of the most troublesome points. One of the first is the idea of “opportunity cost” when it comes to the admission of a recruited athlete over a student getting in purely on academics. Bowen and Levin back their argument with statistics that paint a picture of the recruited athlete getting in taking a spot from someone who, by virtue of a question or two more on the SATs or an extra AP art class, is in some way more qualified. The authors cite the growing number of cases of students frustrated when they see athletes admitted instead of them, believing they are more deserving of that spot because they are somehow more able to capitalize on the school’s academic resources. First of all, the quantification of an applicant’s value is a necessary evil, but one against which I push strongly, particularly when evaluating the power of a commitment to sport on an athlete’s application. Additionally, looking at a case-by-case basis, one would see that just because a recruited athlete is admitted on a coach’s list does not mean his or her credentials are any less impressive than another student’s. In some cases, yes, some aspects may be less statistically impressive, but even in this case, who is to say that athlete is going to take less advantage of what the university has to offer than a non-athlete?

Stereotypes that lead to such conclusions are perpetuated by the student-athlete divide such policies create. Bowen and Levin, in infinite sympathy for the college athlete’s experience, explain that athletes should want things to change because they face an unfair stigma in some places. Feigned sympathy for the athletes is, in this case, appalling, as are several of the book’s statistics-based conclusions that pinpoint athletes without considering alternative, yet logical, explanations. The book stipulates, for example, that statistics show female athletes are less likely to major in the sciences than females in the normal student population. But only for one brief second was scheduling of labs suggested as a potential explanation! If you’ve ever met an engineer at Yale, you’ll have a good idea why athletes shy away from the major: labs are often inflexibly scheduled, mandatory classes offered only during practice times and other requirements clash with an athlete’s somewhat prohibitive schedule. Does their choice to pursue a major to which they can actually fully commit, even if it might not be their first choice, mean athletes are somehow a detriment to the academic community? Statistics can’t prove that to me either.

Similar points go on and on, using statistical data of athletes’ academic performance relative to other portions of the school population, admissions rates, etc. to show what can’t be quantified: an athlete’s value to an academic community relative to who might be there instead. This clinical approach, however, is the main theme of the entire book and it is precisely such a calculated, quantitative approach that is leading the University to its athletic policies. Say Bowen and Levin, “Athletics has often been said to teach ‘character,’ although it is notoriously hard to define, let alone measure, that much-prized but elusive attribute.” If we only teach those things we can measure here, if we only find value in people and their contributions in those things we can quantify, then what are we really teaching here at Yale? It is also hard to measure the value of a liberal arts education, and yet that is precisely what this school was founded on. We cannot quantify character, and so we dismiss it as an important part of an education? Sports teach character, a fact evident not in a spreadsheet on a statistician’s computer, but deeply entrenched in the heart of an athlete or even a devoted fan. Is that not reason enough to value them?

So while I don’t know for sure that such a clinically mathematic simplification of athletics is the basis of the University’s current approach, I will say that if it is, it does not have me convinced. Sure, I don’t have a Ph.D. from Princeton, two graduate degrees from Harvard or a flurry of statistics to back me up. But I’m about to be a graduate of Yale, and more importantly of four years in Yale sports where I learned about character, integrity, and the importance of standing my ground. And I’ll do just that, because from where I’m standing, those are lessons worth learning, and no stat can tell me otherwise.

Comments

  • eli1

    Another great article. I will be sad to see you go. Please do not give up on this cause, and know that many, many alumni are behind you. I can tell you that Levin’s athletics views are based 100% on this book. While I’m sure Levin’s daughter is smart, I’m pretty sure she, like her father, is extremely unqualified to be talking about the intangible benefits of athletics.

  • LtwLimulus90

    I love you Chelsea Janes, and will be so sad that your wonderful columns will no longer be featured in the news. You speak for so many of us athletes/friends of athletes here at Yale, and we are all behind you!

  • HighStreet2010

    You know character and integrity and ain’t no fancy statistics or graduate degrees gonna convince you otherwise. Are you running for the Republican nomination or trying to make an actual point?

    Let’s go through this. Your first point is that on a case-by-case basis, looking only at individual tradeoffs, there’s no way to tell who’s the better admit. And you’re right, which is why we rely on statistical studies on the aggregate rather than anecdotes from people that are clearly biased.

    Athletes shying away from science labs. You say it’s because science labs are inflexible. I’ll take that as fact – and they are inflexible for a reason, namely that scheduling a lab is quite a time costly endeavour for faculty and graduate students and thus can’t be done at any given hour of the day (like section or office hours). Isn’t this a case-in-point of how varsity athletics limits the academic potential of students – by forcing them to make extensive, mandatory, inflexible commitments that run contrary to classwork? Wouldn’t a true student-athlete take the lab, while an athlete-student would go to practice – and does the fact that we don’t see this mean we’re not really getting student-athletes? Or is it just that the athletic environment is such that these students (who know how to ‘stand their ground’) are forced to give up on their desired majors to stick with the team? Do similar correlations exist in other ‘intense’, career-and-social-group-defining extracurriculars, e.g. symphony orchestra or theater performance?

    You can’t quantify character. So why do you take it as a given that athletes have more character than anyone else? Why does laboring for hours on the practice field teach you more about hard work and integrity than laboring in the dark of a physics lab? If I there was something else that ‘built character and integrity’ on the level that only Ivy League Athletics can provide (like say military service or mountaineering) would you agree that we should give those groups special admissions preference, likely letters and admissions quotas? If not, why do we do it for athletes?

    In any case, I agree that athletics does teach something and shouldn’t be cast aside as some unwanted, vulgar vestige of the past. Athletes have their place at Yale and in our society. It’s just not writing columns about how persecuted they are while enjoying the most privilege of any group at Yale.