The recent debate over whether Yale should continue to give special admissions status to athletes is worthy of reflection and consideration. As Yale has become a more democratic and diverse university in the past 30 years, it is tempting to denounce all special privileges. It seems, on the surface, that athletes, legacies, and all others who receive preferential admissions treatment gain an unfair advantage.
But in reality, the issue is more complicated. Sports, and football in particular, have an extremely rich part in Yale’s history. The inventions of Yale player and coach Walter Camp 1880 literally gave birth to the modern game of college football. Larry Kelley ’37 and Clint Frank ’38 claimed two of the first three Heisman trophies. And the Yale Bowl is one of the most revered venues in all of college sports.
The argument that athletes should be granted special admissions status, however, goes beyond tradition. The maintenance of high quality sports programs at Yale serves to diversify the student body racially, economically and socially. Athletic recruitment, especially for sports like football and basketball, often provides an avenue for less privileged but multitalented applicants to join the student body. Moreover, athletes of all backgrounds bring a unique perspective to college social life that would otherwise be missing.
But at the same time that athletes diversify the campus, they also unite it. The annual Harvard-Yale game is a focal point of the academic year, one of the few times when students, alumni, faculty and workers all congregate with a single common interest — beating the Crimson. Indeed, the propensity to generate school pride on a Universitywide level is something unique to athletics, and preserving special admissions is the best way to ensure that Yale’s teams stay competitive and morale stays high.
Much has been said about the tendency for athletes to have lower grades and standardized test scores. While this is an important statistic, the intangible values athletes bring justify sacrificing a few grade points or percentiles on the SAT. The physical and mental drain athletes experience can provide at least a partial explanation. But more important, the nature of sports breeds values like teamwork, leadership and fair play — attributes that simply cannot be graded or scored, but do far more to define a person’s life than academic performance.
Indeed, Yale athletics has produced many of the nation’s leaders, including former President George H.W. Bush ’48 and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke ’71. And it should be noted that these two men fared pretty well in the classroom too — Bush graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Schmoke was a Rhodes Scholar.
All that said, the University should be careful how it applies special admissions status. Athletes in sports like squash, lacrosse and field hockey — which are played almost exclusively by East Coast prep school graduates — should not be the prime beneficiaries of a policy designed to diversify the student body. To grant further advantage to already privileged applicants is to do a disservice to the intent of special admissions for athletes, and consequently, to compromise the value of sports in today’s university life.