For a research university, we take sports very seriously.
Yale counts 35 varsity athletics teams, each with outstanding coaches, facilities and resources. Some teams have histories that stretch back centuries. It is depressing, then, that I must sit back each evening, turn a critical eye upon our magnificent athletics program and ask myself, “Where did we go wrong?”
Decades ago, it was feared that an increasing focus on athletics might mar the otherwise spotless academic credentials of the Ivy League. In the 1980s, coaches all over the Ivy League decided to pre-empt this decline in standards. Their answer? The creation of the Academic Index, a mix of high school GPA and SAT scores in a top-secret formula to yield a number between 170 and 240. Under Ivy League regulations, no student below 176 may be recruited; the Ivy League average is well above 200. Stories abound of students in the 210 range (about a 4.0 GPA and 1300 out of 1600 on the old SAT) being rejected due to inadequate academic performance. Today, Ivy League coaches can pat themselves on the back and say, with pride, that they have recruited athletes as smart as everyone else at these vaunted institutions. The plan worked.
It worked far too well, in fact. Our athletes are undeniably smart. And therein lies the problem —they’re too smart.
The simple reason schools like Duke and the University of Texas are the best in the country is that they are not afraid to aggressively recruit the country’s best athletes, regardless of their academic qualifications. They realize that a student who matches up to Ivy League test scores has probably spent significant amounts of time on schoolwork. This is time they cannot spend on sports. The country’s best student-athletes are those who have, for years before college, focused their lives on one sport with laserlike focus, to the exclusion of all else, including academics. These are the men and women who win Heismans and represent America in the Olympics — and these are the men and women the Ivy League does not get.
The flawed compromise in the Ivy League system is laid bare: our academic standards are too high to admit the nation’s best athletes. Because the best athletes might not be willing to abandon sport to study for the SAT, we are unable to recruit them. At the same time, the academic standards for athletes are lower than those for the general student body. Instead of recruiting the nation’s best athletes, regardless of their grades, we recruit decent athletes with above-average academic performance. Our system deprives us of the best of the best.
I have no doubt that this column will be greeted with skepticism by most, and I can only turn to statistics in my defense. Our football team appears nowhere in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, or the Associated Press Rankings of the top 25 teams. Our men’s soccer team ranks 159th out of 206 teams, according to NCAA statistics; the women’s team fares slightly better, at 130th out of 324. We are 51st out of 76 in field hockey. We barely edge the top 25 in men’s basketball, and come in at 157th in women’s basketball. The awful reality is that often, we’re just not that good.
I do not mean to imply that Yale is uniformly terrible at sports — our lacrosse and crew teams, for instance, are among the nation’s best. But given that the Yale College Council has a budget of just $250,000 a year (in contrast, Penn’s student government has a budget in excess of $2 million, as does Stanford’s), it seems difficult to justify the Athletic Department’s budget of over $35 million a year. Recruited athletes make up over 10 percent of any incoming class, while Yale College is starved of students in the pure sciences and mathematics. Why not save these spots for potential physicists or topologists instead?
Sport is a wonderful thing. It builds camaraderie, rallies Yalies together, gives us somewhere to go wild with adrenaline and something to cheer for — but something must be done to fix our recruiting system. We could recruit STEM majors, or lead the Ivy League in headhunting pure athletes — I make no claim of knowing the optimal course. What I do know is that our current strategy is the worst of all worlds. I see no reason our proud sporting tradition should not continue, but I firmly believe that it must do so with the understanding that we’re just not great. And that’s ok.
Sahaj Sankaran is a freshman in Silliman College.