This Friday, the annual tradition will commence once again. Thousands of students will board busses to mingle with the enemy. A capella groups from Harvard and Yale will perform together, colleges will host Houses, and anticipation will build.
The next morning, students will wake up early to continue the celebration. Then comes The Game. Two schools credited with starting intercollegiate sports will battle in front of a packed stadium, as they have for over 100 years, but things are different than they were in the 1800s.
National television crews will dot the stadium. Well-paid coaches will prowl the sideline, and students who have prepared intensively for months, if not years, will take the field. As students often remark, Harvard feels like a “real” school for one day, a party school crazed with sports. For many, the focus is not on the score: It’s a chance to see alumni and spend a Saturday engaging in revelry.
But for the dozens of student-athletes actually playing The Game, it’s just another day in a Harvard experience increasingly defined by sports. If Harvard is not a sports school already, it feels like more of one every year.
Physically, the school’s athletic complex continues to spread south of the Charles River, with renovations to the hockey arena underway and a new basketball arena soon to come. Symbolically, Harvard sports are quickly assuming a larger role as the face of the University as Harvard’s athletic shield begins sharing the spotlight with the school’s traditional crest. Harvard men’s basketball alone will play on television at least 12 times this season.
A total of 1,026 students participated in varsity athletics in the 2012-2013 academic year—nearly one in six of Harvard undergraduates. With the addition of women’s rugby this fall, Harvard’s 42 Division I varsity sports teams—the most in the NCAA—make it one of the most robust athletics programs in the nation. And as the men’s basketball team’s recent performance in the NCAA Tournament has shown, Harvard is increasingly competing not just within the Ivy League but with large universities nationwide.
As sports have grown at Harvard and across the country, athletes have become more specialized and committed to their pursuits two riverbanks away from Harvard Yard.
Harvard has, in many ways, embraced this shift. With a stated mission of “education through athletics,” the Athletic Department, coaches, and other sports advocates see the field of play as a learning ground and another arena in which Harvard should excel.
Still, some question whether competitive Division I athletics further or hinder Harvard’s broader mission as an academic institution. The decision to admit any one recruited athlete presents an increasing opportunity cost as the number of applications to the College soar and its acceptance rate hovers above a mere 5 percent. At the same time, the financial tradeoffs are increasingly large as Harvard keeps up with growing athletics departments in the Ivy League and across the country.
While many say that Harvard is largely successful in balancing its sometimes conflicting interests from each side of the river, others aren’t so sure. Some point to student-athletes’ increased commitment to their sports as evidence that Harvard might be failing to strike the necessary balance for its students. Others question the Division I model and its place at Harvard altogether.
Since the formation of the Ivy League 59 years ago, the Ancient Eight have consistently struggled to balance athletic success and its impact on academics. These critics raise a question: Has Harvard overstepped the line?
HARVARD SPORTS: A SURVEY COURSE
“I don’t think it ever occurred to me that we’d be recruiting so many people in so many different sports,” says John P. Reardon ’60, Executive Director of the Harvard Alumni Association and a former Harvard Athletic Director. In his capacity as athletic director from 1978 to 1990, Reardon spearheaded a University push toward a more competitive athletics program. Yet even Reardon expresses surprise at the rapid growth of the program during and after his tenure.
Indeed, in recent years Harvard varsity athletics have grown to contain larger numbers of student-athletes than ever before. Football calls more than 100 players its own, while women’s rugby, which recently became Harvard’s 42nd varsity team, has added 42 varsity athletes to the ranks of the Harvard Department of Athletics.
Harvard supports these varsity programs financially, in the forms of funding team travel, hiring coaches, and maintaining the facilities that are largely housed across the Charles River. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Harvard’s Department of Athletics’s expenses totaled more than $21 million in 2012-2013 for all varsity teams. Recruiting costs alone amount to nearly $1 million, roughly triple the Undergraduate Council’s discretionary funding for all recognized College extracurricular groups.
Even athletics’ place in Harvard’s administrative hierarchy speaks to its importance institutionally: Robert Scalise, Harvard’s athletic director, reports directly to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, as do multiple other deans, including the Dean of the College and the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. That’s a higher place in the University’s bureaucratic chain-of-command than the Dean of Undergraduate Education, who reports not to Smith but to the College Dean.
This is all a testament to the large role varsity athletes play at Harvard in the student body, in the budget, and in the administration. At one of the world’s premier academic institutions, however, such a role raises the question of why participation in such a seemingly non-academic pursuit is so widespread—and whether it holds any relevance to academics.
EDUCATION AND EXCELLENCE
The educational value of athletics has long been touted by Harvard and many of its peer institutions. When the eight Ivy schools signed the Ivy charter in 1954, they agreed, “that under proper conditions intercollegiate competition in organized athletics offers desirable development and recreation for players and a healthy focus of collegiate loyalty.”
“Since the beginning of intercollegiate sports there has always been a question of the balance of athletics and academics at institutions like Harvard. This is part of the reason that the Ivy presidents in the 1950s, decided to form the Ivy League and articulated the principles of Ivy League athletics,” Athletic Director Scalise wrote in an email to The Crimson.
The half-century old ideals of player development and school pride remain stated goals of Harvard Athletics. The Department of Athletics’s mission statement is two-fold, celebrating “Education through Athletics” and striving to “Build Community and Pride in Harvard.”
“This is a small classroom, to be honest with you,” says women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who is in the midst of her 32nd season as head coach. “Yes, we’re trying to win, but the way you win is broader than that. The way you win is to develop all of those life skills that you need in life: handling success, handling failure, handling conflict, teamwork, humility, confidence, and what better way to develop all those life skills on a daily, repeated basis than by being on a team?”
While student-athletes learn those skills, many argue that the rest of the school benefits as well. Faculty and alumni often point to the power that sports have to build pride among members of the Harvard community.
“[Athletics] makes a considerable contribution to building loyalty to Harvard or the university where you are,” says government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53. “In America, there are state universities, but the support for the university is built in a good part through the football team or varsity sports.”
Mansfield also argues that varsity athletes bring a diverse skill set to the College. “Diversity refers not just to people’s being different, but to making different contributions to the whole, so the cultivation of the mind needs to take place in the context of a whole, of a student body,” says Mansfield, a former member of the FAS standing committee on athletic sports who says he attends Harvard football games “religiously.” “And in that context, I think athletics has a place.”
Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 argues that a strong sports program is a key component of an American university that hopes to attract students from across the country. “We want to be able to show ourselves persuasively as representing the best of America in the terms that America recognizes...I’m just trying to say that it’s part of the American tradition of collegiate life,” Lewis says.
Lewis adds that eliminating Division I sports would change the way Harvard is viewed in some communities. “It would be even harder for people who are from rural America to think of Harvard as being a real university and not some elite place where people don’t do the things that college students really do,” says Lewis, who throughout his tenure as dean of the College was an active supporter of athletics. “We would sort of drop out a piece of American culture.....And we’d lose a lot of people who come from subcultures of America where sports is one of the ways that you show your ambition.”
Lewis notes Harvard’s commitment to excellence in realms beyond the purely academic as a reason for Harvard’s support of sports.
“I think Harvard still values athletics because people who have displayed success in athletics have shown a capacity to achieve a level of excellence in a particular domain, and the domains in which we try to achieve and represent excellence are not only academic ones, because very few, in the long run, of our undergraduates are going to go on to academic careers,” says Lewis.
Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 writes in an emailed statement that “Harvard’s excellence in athletics is entirely in keeping with our academic excellence.” He adds that “even with the large number of sports at Harvard, the percentage of recruited athletes has largely remained unchanged since 1990,” hovering around 13 percent today.
Track coach Jason S. Saretsky echoes the argument that Harvard as an institution should strive for excellence in all realms, even those beyond the academic. “When you are allowed to pursue mediocrity, I don’t think that goes with the idea of education through athletics,” he says. “I would not want to see an institution like Harvard that is so synonymous with excellence in everything it does settle for just being average—middle of the pack.”
Despite sports’ contributions to the University, some voices question those benefits and whether they really outweigh the costs—financial and otherwise—of maintaining such robust Division I programming at an academic institution. Critiques of the system range from concerns about the pressures that varsity sports place on student-athletes to concerns about the athletes themselves. Most agree that, no matter the benefits, Harvard faces tradeoffs with other facets of the University, such as in admissions, in supporting its growing athletic program.
History professor James Kloppenberg argues that Harvard should focus on attracting academically minded students.
“If students are being recruited to Harvard for something other than academics, then those students shouldn’t be here,” Kloppenberg says. “I think that’s true in many other universities, and I think that’s a mistake that Harvard has to resist—not only encouraging such recruitment, but even allowing people to come in who are not going to make the commitment to academics.”
Sitting in his office in the heart of Harvard’s History Department in Robinson Hall, surrounded by a crowded book shelf, Kloppenberg voices the concerns of many in the professoriate who worry that student-athletes are being drawn away from the academic arena.
“The danger is that as sports have grown in importance, it seems that the intercollegiate component is becoming a more important part of athletes’ lives than the classroom,” says Kloppenberg, who says he “loves” sports and played on the baseball team as a freshman at Dartmouth but later left the team to pursue other interests.
Kloppenberg says that the main question to answer is, “Do students here feel pressure from their coaches, peers, or from themselves to devote less time to academics? If that pressure is real, then there is a serious imbalance, because Harvard should be a place where academics are the priority.” To Kloppenberg, whether or not such an imbalance exists at Harvard is dependent on student-athletes’ experiences.
D.J. Monroe ’13, a Harvard football player, says that playing on the football team amounts to a full-time job. And though he did say that players are able to take whatever courses they want, assuming they don’t conflict with team practice and travel, some others worry such a commitment to sports makes it impossible for athletes to excel on both sides of the river in whatever field they so choose.
“I think if we looked it up it used to be 10 kids on the team 40 years ago who went into medicine,” says Reardon, the former athletic director. “Now it’s maybe one or two. You have to be so organized to do science and play a sport.”
Former Princeton president William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s research in their 2001 book “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values” found that even at selective colleges, students playing sports were more likely to perform less well academically than would be expected based on their previous academic credentials.
In a phone interview, Shulman said that today the emphasis that institutions of higher education place on intercollegiate athletics and the intensity of specialization and recruiting “hasn’t really diminished much at all” since he and Bowen researched and wrote “The Game of Life.”
Scalise points out that Harvard has “oversight mechanisms” put in place to monitor athletes’ time commitments and academic standing. The groups, one composed of faculty members and the other made up of alumni and others around the country, also report on admission standards.
In admissions, Shulman says that Harvard today faces a tradeoff when deciding which students to admit—for every student accepted largely for their specialized ability in a specific sport, there is another who isn’t, and deciding what a school values more is a judgment on the part of administrators. Douglas M. Schmidt ’76, an alumnus who wrote a letter to University President Drew G. Faust last year detailing his concerns about Harvard athletics, also emphasizes the opportunity cost of admitting a large number of recruited athletes when it could instead offer admission to others in their place.
“I do believe that the University, for its own good, should do what it does best,” Schmidt says in a phone interview. “And what it does best is attract the best and brightest and most accomplished students from around the world in the arts, the sciences, and the humanities, and the social sciences. It has at its grasp future leaders in academia, in politics, business, and it should do everything it can to maximize the number of places for those students.”
The debate concerning athletics’ place in higher education is by no means unique to Harvard, and by no means new. The debate surrounding appropriate academic standards for recruited athletes in the Ivy League has gone on for decades, with the 1985 creation of the Academic Index—a metric calculated with a combination of a recruited athlete’s high school GPA and SAT scores—marking an effort to set higher academic standards for the league’s recruits. Ivy League rules now stipulate a minimum score for recruits and require that an athletic department’s student-athletes’ average AI score fall no lower than one standard deviation below the average score for the overall student population.
“Instead of admitting people who we feel—with special support—could get through the academic program if spread out over a five-year period,” Scalise writes, “we admit people who are representative of the student body, as measured by the Ivy League.”
BECOMING MORE SPECIALIZED
Despite the controls put in place relating to admission, the balance between athletics and academics has undeniably shifted over time as athletics have grown in size and scope. Harvard athletics were radically different when Dave Fish ’72, the men’s tennis coach, played on the team.
“The level of organization…we had nothing,” says Fish, who also played on the varsity squash team, “we had to buy our own tennis balls. We had two shirts with an ‘H’ on it. Otherwise we would have looked like we came right off the street. It’s just that everything’s changed.”
Much of that change came in the decade following Fish’s graduation under the leadership of then-Athletic Director Reardon. By 1980, Harvard had added its 40th team, women’s water polo, and in the ensuing years, Reardon opened a new pool, indoor track, tennis center and basketball arena and updated the hockey rink while repairing Harvard Stadium. In so doing, Reardon set Harvard on a path to competitiveness that it continues to follow today.
“I thought we ought to play as many sports and have as much participation as we could,” Reardon says. But Reardon has seen big changes transpire since then, like the elimination of junior varsity teams, which he said annoys him to this day.
Even back then, some were concerned about the consequences of strengthening the athletic program. At a 1981 panel discussion titled “Harvard Athletics: Then and Now,” then-swim team captain Bobby Hackett ’81 worried that his sport “[was] becoming very hard-core. People tend to forget what they’re here for.”
The current Ivy League now shares few similarities with the body as it existed in Jan. 18, 1954, when the Ivy Group Agreement was signed. For instance, in addition to changes in recruiting policy, freshmen became eligible to play varsity sports in 1993, and spring football practices were added in 1994.
“What we’re looking at is a societal trend,” Fish says. “It’s not a Harvard thing. Sports have professionalized because people want a more professional approach. They have specialized more before they get here. In the same way that musicians and poker players play more before they get here. That’s just the way society was going and Harvard is trying to respond intelligently to that trend.”
Some critics argue against the increased specialization and professionalization of college sports that athletes, coaches, and outside researchers alike have observed in recent decades. In particular, some members of the Harvard community express concerns that this increased specialization could put more pressure on athletes to prioritize their sports and makes recruiting true “scholar-athletes” more difficult.
Reardon, now the HAA executive director, has watched Harvard’s athletes become increasingly specialized over the course of decades.
“Having run admissions for so long too, I think about this a lot: There are some great kids that don’t get into this place that might play three sports pretty well, they’re pretty bright kids, they’re all-American kids, and they’re going to do pretty well in life,” Reardon says. “And I think about other kids who have come here and done well [in the past], and would they get in today?”
While he was athletic director, Reardon tried to change things. He ordered a meeting and asked if the department could select 10 sports that would be recruited and the others would not be. “It was a waste of a discussion,” Reardon remembers. Every coach wanted to recruit for his or her sport, and the athletic director was unable to develop any traction.
The increasing demands of playing sports at the varsity level are a cause of concern to some faculty and alumni. Shulman, co-author of “The Game of Life,” notes that with the rise of specialization, the students who benefit most from the educational aspects of varsity athletics are those who have already played them—often extensively—before.
“I think the biggest irony in the college sports debate at selective colleges and universities is [that] the people who feel most strongly about those values feel that they should only accrue to a very specialized group, and a group that were admitted having spent time honing those skills in the first place,” Shulman says.
Scalise, Harvard’s current athletic director, has been credited with increasing Harvard’s club sports options in the name of “Athletics for All.” “Harvard has put so much money into [its] club sports system,” Fish says. “That’s unbelievable to me. That’s been a sort of evolutionary growth of this awareness of how good this is for everybody.”
Yet, less competitive teams have also seen their budgets shrink in recent years. In 2009, junior varsity basketball, baseball, and hockey teams were turned into club sports, meaning they received less support from the athletic department.
And just this year, club teams saw decreased financial support from the UC as it faced budget constraints, with the largest possible grants decreasing from $2,000 to $1,275.
ON THE FIELD
While coaches and professors offer varying evaluations of the role of varsity athletics within the University, the athletes themselves provide a different perspective on the program. Many student-athletes say that they build bonds with teammates, revel in the thrill of competition, and often define their Harvard experiences by their time on the field or court and the relationships they form there.
Women’s basketball captain Christine D. Clark ’14 echoes her coach’s sentiment about the educational value of her sport: “I think the sport itself teaches you so much, and then being on a team sport, especially in college—there are just so many things you learn about life and about how to act as a person,” Clark says. “It’s an education in itself to be on a team here.”
Many recruited athletes add that they chose to attend Harvard for both its athletic and academic opportunities, and many coaches say that academics should come first for them while they’re here. While some coaches say that students should be able to fit their sports within their academic schedules, some are willing to accommodate students missing practice for a class.
Still, concerns linger among some faculty, and often among other students, about recruited athletes’ level of academic preparedness and the impact that the demands of playing for a team might have on their ability to prioritize academics while at Harvard.
“There are still people who have the misconception that if you are an athlete you cannot also be a scholar. Our athletes have proved over the years that the opposite of this stereotype is true,” writes Scalise.
Certainly stereotypes about high-profile varsity athletes populating less rigorous “athlete classes” abound. That stereotype was thrown into the spotlight last fall when dozens of athletes left campus amidst the fallout of the Government 1310 cheating scandal.
Other research suggests that recruited athletes come to selective colleges with lower academic credentials than their non-recruited peers. Data from The Crimson’s freshman survey of the Class of 2017, too, found that respondents who self-identified as recruited athletes entered Harvard this fall with self-reported composite SAT scores more than 170 points lower on average than their non-recruited counterparts.
Once they get to campus, some athletes struggle to balance their academics with their athletic commitments. Increased specialization and a strong bond of commitment to their respective teams limit athletes’ abilities to learn outside of the athletic complex.
For some students, this commitment is too much to balance with their academics. Kathleen J. Koenigs ’15 entered Harvard her freshman fall and walked on to the women’s heavyweight varsity crew team, but only rowed with the team for that semester. Koenigs, though not recruited to row at Harvard, did crew in high school and had been recruited to row at several other Ivies.
A history and science concentrator and pre-med student, Koenigs from the start knew that academics came first for her—and felt that she needed to leave the team to prioritize them as such.
If she had been recruited, Koenigs says, she would have felt pressured not to leave and to put her sport first, above her academics. With 30 hours per week devoted to crew from team and individual workouts and other time spent with the team, she says that she doesn’t know how other athletes can be pre-med while keeping that commitment.
Monroe, for his part, loves football. “I’m living the dream, man,” Monroe says. “I’m at Harvard and playing football…. I’m enjoying it while I can.”
Monroe was excited when head coach Tim Murphy came down to his Columbia, S.C., home, and he readily accepted an offer to come to Harvard after he was admitted. Now in his fifth year with the Crimson, Monroe has enjoyed performing in front of thousands of fans at Harvard Stadium. He’s come to relish the camaraderie he’s developed with teammates and the preparation for life that he feels he is receiving.
But he recognizes that he has made tradeoffs to play the sport he loves. “There are always two sides to every story,” Monroe says. He quickly rattles off his list of football-related commitments: daily practice, film meetings, rehabilitation, travel, and that’s all before he talks about actually playing the games. He has to make sure to take morning classes that do not conflict with practice times and avoid classes taught on Friday in the fall semester.
“You get a chance to play a sport, you get a chance to bond with people, and you have to manage your time differently than somebody who doesn’t play sports,” Monroe says. “People that do play sports here, they come out with a different Harvard experience than everybody else.”
SENDING A MESSAGE
The tradeoffs that student-athletes must make to commit to their sports are mirrored, in some respects, by the tradeoffs that Harvard makes as an institution when it chooses to support robust varsity athletics. Shulman speaks to the tradeoffs that Harvard makes with regards to athletics, particularly with admissions decisions. “The research that higher education does and the brainpower that it trains is the scarcest resource, and an incredibly valuable part of intellectual and social capital for the country and for the world,” Shulman says.
“And so the question is, what’s the best use of that spot?” Shulman continues. “I think it is naive to think that there are no issues at Harvard or other Ivy league schools about athletics because the students who are there are very smart and very well-prepared—I think there are still tradeoff issues.”
Some think that Harvard currently makes too many tradeoffs, and others simply caution that Harvard needs to constantly monitor the balance between both interests.
Fish says a balance is currently being struck, though it is important to continue monitoring the interaction between athletics and academics. “It’s an area we’ve all debated over many years,” he says. “It’s worthy of asking the questions because it keeps us on our toes.”
Shulman says that Harvard is ultimately sending the outside world a message about its values when it chooses how to prioritize athletics, in this case with regards to admissions. He relates an anecdote about a father who asked him about his daughter, who was talented both at chemistry and soccer and trying to decide which interest to spend more time on.
“Are you saying that she should spend more time on soccer than chemistry?” Shulman asks. “If you are good at sports, Harvard in their admissions policy and other Ivy League schools in their admissions policies are making it very clear that they want you to take that very seriously. … Specialized talent is a signal that academic institutions are sending to high school and junior high kids all over the country—this is something we value in our revealed preferences, in how we act.”