October 11, 2000

Fellows program brings together academics and athletics

By Matt Golden '94

Distant, preoccupied, self-important. They teach out of obligation and live for their research. Many have been at Princeton for decades, but they couldn't find Jadwin Gymnasium with the help of an Orange Key guide. They are members of the Princeton University faculty, and that is how they are often perceived by student-athletes.

They are simple, boorish, and beneath Princeton's standards. They are the "dumb jocks" who rob precious admission slots from deserving young scholars. They are Princeton's student-athletes, and this is the stereotyping they face from many within the university community.

These misperceptions have long polarized faculty and student-athletes at Old Nassau. Hectic schedules and heavy class loads make it difficult for professors to develop close relationships with all of their students. And student-athletes, like many other students, are often reluctant to approach professors outside the classroom. Recruited student-athletes face different admission standards from other applicants, and so frequently begin freshman year unsure of themselves and their scholastic abilities. In new and intimidating surroundings, they wonder, "Can I possibly handle all the labs and papers, prepare adequately for precepts, write two junior papers, and complete a senior thesis while I devote 20 hours per week to practices and games? And do my illustrious and renowned professors, whom I see twice a week in crowded lecture halls, really care?"

This overwhelming and impersonal view of academic life at Princeton is slowly changing. Last year, Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 instituted the Academic-Athletic Fellows program in an effort to better support student-athletes in both their educational and athletic pursuits. In the program, university professors and administrators volunteer their time and energy to provide academic and personal support to members of specific athletic teams. Walters says, "It's our hope that the fellows will not only become trusted advisers, but confidants and friends of the coaches and student-athletes in ways that make the educational process at Princeton more personal."

The program initially grew out of the long-standing friendship between Marvin Bressler, professor, emeritus, of social sciences and former head of the sociology department, and the coaches of the men's basketball team. Pete Carril, then the team's head coach, would occasionally ask Bressler to help or advise a player. Bressler says, "I no longer recall when I became a certified Kindly Old Mentor, but I do know that I learned as much as I taught, from several generations of knowledgeable players whose intelligence belies the stereotypical image of the 'dumb jock.' These associations have been the most rewarding of my time at Princeton."

Once his relationship with the basketball team took root, Bressler began scheduling alumni speaking engagements in conjunction with the team's away games. The events were generally scheduled during the day, before the team played. "Quite coincidentally," says Bressler, the timing of the alumni engagements provided an opportunity for the professor to catch many road games. "On the road, players talk about things that students talk about, including academic issues and personal matters. I guess they trusted me because I was a fan."

Players are often reluctant to discuss their concerns with parents, friends, and coaches. Student-athletes face enormous expectations. Many fear failure and being considered weak. So when team members learned that Bressler could be a trusted ally, his role began to expand. He says, "Over the years I've tried to reach out to players who seemed troubled by something or were having academic difficulties."

Now, Bressler reaches out even before the players arrive on campus. During late August, as he does annually, Bressler met three incoming basketball recruits for a get-to-know-you dinner. He says, "It's tough enough to make the transition from high school to college, even without carrying the equivalent of a double-major. It is important at the outset to orient [student-athletes] to the joys and tribulations of the classroom and campus life. Later, if they need advice or comfort, they can approach a professor who has a familiar face."

Faculty and administrators have recognized the program's merit and signed on in significant numbers. With about 40 faculty members participating, every men's and women's varsity team now has at least one fellow, and many teams have several. Last spring, Walters charged each team's head coach with developing a plan of action for utilizing the fellows. Walters hopes this will maximize the benefits of the interaction between the faculty fellows and the coaches and student-athletes. He says, "We want to make sure that, as an athletic department, we do our best to assure that none of our student-athletes fall through the cracks and that there is a support system in place which enables and encourages them to reach out for help."

History professor Sean Wilentz, fellow for the baseball team, believes the program provides benefits of varying scale to both the student-athletes and the fellows themselves. He says, "For some students, the experience makes Princeton possible. . . . For others, the benefits have more to do with gaining a greater sense of discipline and camaraderie." He adds, "I much enjoy the time I spend with [head baseball coach] Scott Bradley, talking baseball in general. He and the rest of the staff have become good friends of mine. I especially enjoy meeting the players and their parents."

Walters was anxious to formalize the relationship established between Bressler and the men's basketball team and then replicate it throughout the athletic department. However, he refuses to establish strict guidelines for the program or to list the faculty members involved, saying, "This program is not about specifics. It is about creating an ethos and a culture that supports the development of the mind as well as a respect for the self-esteem that our student-athletes derive from their athletic involvement."

The program is young and still taking shape, but Walters ultimately envisions it as a complement to the long-established residential college advising system - not a replacement. Primary responsibility for student academic advising still rests with the residential colleges, but through the fellows Walters hopes to expand the options for student-athletes in need of advice or counseling and to make these services more accessible.

Bressler is flattered that Walters has modeled the program on his longtime approach to building relationships with student-athletes, and he agrees with Walters that a rigid structure could limit the program's potential benefits. He says, "There is no job description for this work. It depends on the personalities of the individuals involved. It's gratifying to me, not that programs are modeled on what I did or didn't do, but that I managed to help a few people."

Players, coaches, faculty, and alumni alike have expressed their pleasure with the early direction of the fellows program. Walters is pleased with the results to date, but believes success will ultimately hinge on the ability of the coaches to establish significant relationships with the fellows. Religion professor Jeff Stout, who is the fellow for the men's soccer team, seconds that, saying, "The barriers that separate the athletic and academic spheres at a place like this can be formidable, especially in the eyes of student-athletes who are unsure of their own abilities or who suspect that professors would prefer to have them purged from campus life. It's mainly up to the coaches and faculty to knock down those barriers. That is exactly what this program is designed to do."

Former Princeton student-athlete Matt Golden '94 is PAW's assistant editor.


Return to Features Main Menu