President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Athletics in an Ivy Context
February 26, 2003
Last June, following seven months of deliberation by athletic directors, deans, and others, the presidents of the eight Ivy League schools unanimously adopted a requirement that each school “establish a designated rest period for each sport, which will consist of at least seven weeks during the academic year, during which intercollegiate athletes will have no required athletic activities,” including practices supervised by coaches or captains. The schools were given flexibility in deciding which weeks would apply in each sport (the weeks did not have to be consecutive), and the requirement was later reduced to a total of 33 days for crew because of circumstances specific to that sport. The rule does not constrain the ability of students to work out on their own.
Not surprisingly, a number of student athletes, coaches, and alumni have expressed concern about this “seven-week rule,” which has become known as a “moratorium.” Why did the Ivy presidents adopt the rule, and what are the implications for the League, and more specifically for Princeton?
Perhaps the most important thing to say first is that the rule does not reflect a change in the commitment of the League, or of Princeton, to the goals that led to the formation of the League almost 50 years ago. The League was founded on a belief that athletics can add significant value to a student’s overall educational experience. What has distinguished the Ivy League from many other athletic conferences over the years is not just that we do not provide athletic scholarships, but that we expect our student athletes to be students first and foremost—to enter with credentials comparable to those of their classmates and to achieve in the classroom and participate in campus life just as other students do.
As in all other aspects of extracurricular life, we want our varsity athletes to have excellent experiences as athletes as well as students. That is why we place so much emphasis on providing our students with first-rate coaches and facilities and take such pride in their competitive successes. As a varsity athlete myself in high school, I know first hand the joy that comes from a high-quality athletic experience, and as a Tiger fan I eagerly look forward to the opportunities I have now to see our stellar athletes in action: playing for the national title in men’s and women’s lacrosse, opening the home men’s basketball season against Harvard, watching the women’s ice hockey team beat Brown in Baker Rink. We have very high aspirations for our athletes—on the playing field, in the classroom and in all other aspects of campus life.
The moratorium grew out of a collective concern of all eight Ivy presidents about two disturbing trends on all of our campuses that suggest that over the last 25 years there has been a steady erosion in the “representativeness” of the Ivy League student athlete. One trend involves the academic underperformance of student athletes, compared to what we would expect given their academic qualifications upon matriculation. In the early days of the League, the academic performance of student athletes was essentially indistinguishable from the performance of other students. Unfortunately this is no longer the case, even for those who arrive with excellent academic credentials, and while there are different views about the extent and severity of under-performance and the reasons for it, it seems clear that the trend lines—for male athletes in particular, but also increasingly for female athletes as well—are moving in the wrong direction.
Some of the evidence for this concern comes from Bill Bowen’s book, The Game of Life, and from a follow-up study scheduled for publication later this year. While questions have been raised about some of these findings, and while aggregate data certainly can fail to give full expression to the very significant academic achievements of athletes like this year’s Rhodes and Marshall Scholar, Laura Shackelton ’03, the basic concerns identified in Bill Bowen’s work were reaffirmed for Princeton by an independent study by our Faculty Committee on Athletics last year.
The second trend is captured by a study at Princeton by Professors Deborah Prentice and Nancy Cantor (now Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) that found that athletes at several select schools, including Princeton, spend approximately twice as much time on a single extracurricular activity as any other kind of student group and engage in fewer extracurricular activities overall. Here again there certainly are exceptions, but in general the League seems to be moving away from its founding principles that expected athletes to have the time to participate fully in all aspects of campus life.
One purpose of the moratorium was to take a step, however small, toward underscoring the importance all of the Ivies attach to academic achievement and to finding a proper balance for student athletes between their athletic and academic pursuits. A second purpose was to take a small step back from the intensity that increasingly characterizes athletics at the collegiate—even the pre-collegiate—level, and to insure that student athletes have some time in the academic year when they can pursue other extracurricular and cultural interests without feeling that they are shirking their commitments to their coaches and their teams.
The presidents have understood that the moratorium is, in many respects, a “blunt instrument,” and that it may not prove to be the best method to achieve their central objective, which is to insure that athletes have substantial time for non-athletic activities. At Princeton and throughout the League we have every intention of continuing to support a strong and competitive athletic program, but without accepting a degree of “professionalism” among our student athletes that could risk their becoming a different class of student.
At their December 2002 meeting, the Ivy presidents agreed that they would review the operation of the seven-week rule in June. They also agreed to consider other specific proposals that might better achieve their objectives. The moratorium was designed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. We certainly will be monitoring it carefully at Princeton, as part of a more general effort to be sure that we are achieving as fully as possible the educational goals that are at the heart of Princeton’s commitment to athletics in an Ivy context.