The news of last month’s admissions scandal was undeniably shocking. But as the writer Michael Kinsley famously once said of corruption in Washington, “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.”
College athletic recruitment in America is a scandal. It is time to have a serious conversation about athletic recruitment at elite colleges — including Yale.
William Singer, the corrupt fixer behind the fraud, theorized about three “doors” in the admissions process. The front door represents honest academic admissions. The back door represents the legalized bribery of ultra-wealthy parents who make multimillion-dollar donations in return for “VIP treatment” (which has been documented by the News). The side door is Singer’s method, which consisted of faking students’ learning disabilities, doctoring their transcripts and SAT scores and exploiting the lax requirements of athletic recruitment.
But there is a fourth door — recruiting into niche sports that confer few benefits, whether it be cultural diversity or overall prestige?
I certainly do not mean to suggest that athletics have no place on our campus, or that our athletes are lazy. On the contrary, the demands of playing a varsity sport are substantial.
But in light of our national reckoning over college admissions — a reckoning that goes well beyond the cartoon-like villainy described in last month’s indictments — the familiar arguments for athletic recruitment can no longer be justified.
Movies like “The Blind Side” romanticize a narrative of football and basketball players from poor backgrounds who use athletic scholarships to escape the inner city. That’s true at some schools. But the reality is that Ivy League athletic recruitment is “affirmative action for rich white students,” to quote a recent article in The Atlantic. The sports at which Yale genuinely excels — sailing, golf, fencing and squash, among others — are almost exclusively dominated by white students. According to NCAA data, just 2 percent of college golfers are black. Out of the 237 Division I sailors in 2017, not a single one was black.
Recruited athletes are also wealthier than the average Ivy League student. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It is difficult to become a world-class golfer if your family cannot afford a country club membership; it is difficult to learn how to sail if you cannot buy a sailboat. The average family of a high school lacrosse player devotes $8,000 to the sport each year. Clearly, for most college sports, athletic recruitment is not a pathway out of poverty; it actually increases inequality on campuses.
Although colleges such as Yale take pains to only recruit athletes capable of handling their coursework, it is no secret that athletic recruitment offers a massive advantage in admissions. Data disclosed in the recent Harvard affirmative action lawsuit shows that 70 percent of athletes with a mediocre academic ranking were accepted, compared with just 0.076 percent of all other students with the same academic qualifications. Moreover, a 2002 study showed that at 30 selective colleges, athletes were given a 48 percent boost in admissions, compared with 25 percent for legacies and 18 percent for racial minorities. Recruitment for most sports at Ivy League schools crowds out spots that could be given to deserving working-class applicants and students of color.
Fundamentally, there is no logical justification for allowing students to bypass the rigorous standards of academic admissions just because they play a sport. Athletic recruits work hard, for sure, but so does everybody else at Yale, including poets, debaters, journalists and even violinists. The contributions of athletes to the life of the college are great, but so are those of activists or musicians. Yet, we do not allow the Yale Symphony Orchestra to send prospective oboists likely letters years in advance. We assume that Yalies can be brilliant students who also have diverse talents.
Preferential recruitment also stigmatizes the athletic recruits themselves by implying that they are here solely to perform on the field. By admitting athletes through a different system than their classmates, Yale implicitly declares that it values them only for their athletic abilities, not for their academic contributions. To quote University President Peter Salovey, student-athletes “are here as students, to get a great education. That is the most important aspect of their time at Yale.” This should be reflected in Yale’s admissions practices by holding them to the same academic standards as everyone else.
Yale has no need to offer a separate channel of admissions for athletes. I have met plenty of talented students here who were accepted on their academic merits and subsequently walked on to a varsity team. Achievements in soccer and basketball should be factors that round out an application, equal to the consideration given to applicants who happen to be outstanding writers, artists and chess players. Even if Yale moves away from athletic recruitment, talented athletes who are also excellent students will be encouraged to apply and our athletics program will remain strong.
Yale has to face the contradiction between its stated goal of increasing the socioeconomic diversity of its student body and its allotment of admissions slots to recruited athletes. The current system increases campus inequality and exposes Yale’s hollow commitments to increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity. To create a more equitable admissions process, Yale must end athletic recruitment.
Isaiah Schrader is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .