December 17, 2003: Features
What price victory?
Princetons former president argues that precious seats are wasted on recruited athletes who are too focused on their sports. The prickly debate points to a larger question: What kind of place does Princeton want to be?
By Doug Lederman 84
Emily Kroshus 04 rolls out of bed every morning and laces up her running shoes. Shes out the door a little after 8 a.m. for a six-mile run through the neighborhoods around the campus. After a quick shower and breakfast, the senior is off to class, which on most days takes her through to afternoon practice for either cross-country or track, depending on the time of year. Midday sustenance is usually a PowerBar.
Practice runs from 4 p.m. to about 6:30, and after a visit to the training room and dinner, she sits down to study, absolutely exhausted, until 11 p.m. or midnight, when, she says, I collapse on my feet.
By necessity, some things fall by the wayside. Kroshus generally passes up late nights out at the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue, and misses most campus lectures, many of which are scheduled for 4:30 p.m., prime practice time. But Kroshus, who has her eye on the 2008 or 2012 Olympics, says she wouldnt change a thing. I have very high goals for my sport and will sacrifice just about everything but academics for it, says the economics major, who has about a 3.3 grade-point average. You just have to prioritize.
Sports dominated Tom Crenshaw 03s first two years at Princeton, too. As a member of both the football and baseball teams, not a week went by that he didnt practice or compete for one or the other. He hung out mostly with teammates, and decided what classes to take based not on what would be interesting, but what are the requirements for this course, and how often am I going to have to go, he says. It was more about what I had to do to just get through.
That all changed during the fall of his junior year, when a combination of injuries, some pitching problems, and personal considerations led Crenshaw to take a leave from Princeton. When he returned to the campus the following summer as a nonathlete, he saw the place differently. Instead of thumbing through the course guide looking for gut classes, he paid more attention to, hey, this might be something Im interested in learning, he says.
I started to get a little more involved and become more of a student, says Crenshaw, who now teaches history in a high school in Franklin Township, New Jersey. I started to enjoy and appreciate Princeton for what it had to offer, more than I had in the past.
Two athletes, two different experiences. The fact that athletes have widely varying lives at Princeton is a fundamental truth and an inherent danger in any discussion about the appropriate role of athletics at the University.
In a book published this fall by Princeton University Press, former Princeton president William G. Bowen *58 and a coauthor argue that to try to keep up with high-octane sports programs with lesser academic aspirations, Ivy and other elite colleges admit large numbers of recruited athletes, particularly in high-profile mens sports, who enter college with weaker academic credentials than their peers and then perform less well than they would be expected to, given those credentials. Recruited athletes, who make up as much as a quarter of the student bodies at their institutions almost 14 percent at Princeton tend to self-segregate socially, and on balance are not well integrated into the campuses academic or extracurricular lives, Bowen says. The book, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, argues that recruited athletes at elite colleges seem to be unable or unwilling to take full advantage of all that the institutions offer, and that the colleges compromise themselves by enrolling so many of them.
Most Princeton athletes acknowledge that they give up a lot by competing in varsity athletics, at a time when the expectations of and demands on athletes have grown at every level from Little League onward, compared to 20 and 30 years ago. But almost all the 30 current and former Tiger players interviewed for this article say the trade-off is worth it, in part because they dont feel they give up as much as the critics contend, and in part because what they gain is so valuable.
I get a very diverse experience being an athlete here, says Theresa Sherry 04, cocaptain of the womens soccer and lacrosse teams. I never wanted to be stereotyped, labeled as one thing. Thats why I came to Princeton, because it had the perfect balance between excellent academics and competing nationally in athletics at the highest level.
Whether being at Princeton has been good for the athletes is not Bowens question. What concerns him and others is whether Princeton and other academically elite institutions are compromising themselves by doing whats necessary, in admissions and other realms, to compete athletically at the highest levels. And that discussion has implications that extend far beyond Princetons playing fields. Ultimately, the questions about athletic balance and admissions point to a much more basic one: What kind of institution does Princeton want to be?
Finding the perfect mix of academics and athletics seems to vex Princeton more than most institutions of its kind. Gary Walters 67, the Universitys athletics director, often says that Princeton seems uncomfortable in its athletics skin, meaning that some administrators and professors see Princetons extraordinary athletic success as incompatible with its reputation as a top-ranked academic institution. In recent years, the University has gone through emotionally fraught soul-searching about the appropriate role of athletics, inflaming passions among sports administrators, athletes, academic officials, and alumni alike.
The most recent round has been prompted by the man who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988. In Reclaiming the Game, Bowen and his coauthor, Sarah A. Levin, a doctoral student at Harvard (and the daughter of Yales president), offer these findings about the Ivy League:
Athletes identified by university coaches as high priorities for their teams were nearly four times likelier than other applicants to be admitted.
Recruited male athletes in high-profile sports defined as football, basketball, and ice hockey had S.A.T. scores that were more than 150 points lower than the average for their classes.
More than 80 percent of Ivy recruited athletes in those high-profile mens sports are in the bottom third of their classes, as are nearly two-thirds of recruited male athletes in other sports and about 45 percent of recruited female athletes.
Recruited athletes underperform academically compared to other students with similar credentials. Those in high-profile mens sports have a class rank that is about 20 percentile points lower than other students with the same S.A.T. scores, field of study, and race. Other recruited male athletes finish about 16 percentile points lower than would have been predicted, and recruited female athletes finish about 13 percentile points lower. That is not true, Bowen notes, for musicians and other students who participate heavily in extracurricular activities; they, in fact, overperform based on their credentials.
The authors attribute this underperformance not to the time demands on the affected athletes but to their comparative lack of intellectual interest and academic motivation. They postulate that in admitting recruited athletes, admission offices are not paying enough attention to whether the players want to take full advantage of the education the institutions provide. And institutions like Princeton, they argue, are squandering their most precious resource their high-quality academic offerings if they set aside so many admission slots for people who do not take full advantage of them. Each recruited athlete who attends one of these schools has taken a spot away from another student who was, in all likelihood, more academically qualified and probably more committed to taking full advantage of the educational resources available at these schools, the authors write. In an interview, Bowen adds: Princeton is a privileged place, a very privileged place. I would argue that it has an obligation to want to have its extraordinary educational resources utilized to the fullest.
Bowens findings are not universally accepted in Nassau Hall. While President Tilghman is concerned about the academic performance of some athletes, she believes that Bowens description exaggerates the extent of the problem, at least at Princeton. She notes that Tiger athletes academic underperformance amounts on average to their achieving a 3.2 G.P.A., when comparably qualified students earn a 3.6 a B-plus instead of an A-minus. Its really important to realize that these arent dramatic differences, she says. Theyre statistically measurable, but these kids arent flunking out, and they arent getting Ds. Instead of getting A-minuses, theyre getting Bs. (Bowen counters that the G.P.A. as a measure has been rendered almost meaningless by significant grade inflation at elite institutions.)
Bowens description of the situation may sound foreign to alumni of a generation or two ago. Princeton and the other Ivy League universities always have taken pride in their belief that their athletes are truly representative of, and even indistinguishable from, other students. Bowen and others who share his views believe that that ought to be the case, and argue that it used to be but no longer is.
Those in the Bowen camp at Princeton some professors and administrators, including Thomas H. Wright 62, who retires this month as vice president and secretary paint a picture of the 1950s and 1960s in which most athletes at the University walked onto their teams, rather than having been heavily recruited, and in which many played multiple sports. They portray an era in which athletes were virtually indistinguishable academically from their fellow students.
But such nostalgia for the past may be at least partially misplaced. Richard W. Kazmaier Jr. 52, who more than anyone personifies that era at Princeton, recounts being barred by the football coaches in 1950, that is from playing a spring sport because they wanted him to focus exclusively on football. (Kazmaier also famously told Time magazine in its 1951 cover story on him that he intentionally and willingly let his studies slide during football season, because he liked to do one thing at a time. Time wrote: At the moment, he is chiefly interested in the grades he gets from Coach [Charlie] Caldwell.) And the writer and professor John McPhee 53, who played freshman basketball at Princeton, recalls seeing a sign decades ago on the bulletin board where the baseball team was advertising its practice sessions that said: If we dont know you, dont come out, suggesting that nonrecruited players were not very welcome. So much for a bygone era filled with walk-on athletes. (It is also worth noting that almost half of Princetons athletes walk onto their teams today, although this is much less common in high-profile sports such as football and basketball.)
Still, the nature of sports in the U.S. undoubtedly has changed significantly over the decades, and the Ivies have not been immune. This is an era in which many 8-year-old suburban girls play soccer and basketball year-round and 11-year-old boys in Pop Warner football have two practices a day during their preseason. Athletes everywhere specialize earlier than they used to, and those who excel are often pushed or push themselves to play and practice with club teams as well as school teams. Intensification, or professionalization, as critics call it, is rampant.
Such dedication to a single activity is not limited to athletics. Today, the Princeton student body features scores of young people who have chosen to participate intensely in one activity oboists in the orchestra, debaters in the Whig-Clio Society, and breaststrokers on the swim team and all of those activities add something to the campus environment. For athletes and others, specialization wins applicants an admission edge. Once, when Princeton was mostly an enclave of East Coast prep-school graduates, the University tended to admit classes of well-rounded young people who were good at everything. Today, many Princeton officials agree, there are well-rounded classes of individuals who have many talents but are exceptional in a particular thing, be it photography, physics, or football.
But the specialization may be most intense or at least is most visible in the highly competitive world of athletics. It may be only natural that athletes at a Division I school like Princeton commit as much time to their sports as they do, even though the Ivy League restricts playing seasons and athletes off-season commitments far more than the N.C.A.A. does. While the N.C.A.A. limits the number of hours athletes can spend on their sports to 20 a week, the rule is widely flouted, at least in spirit. Coaches may keep actual practice and competition to 20 hours a week, but when most Princeton athletes add up the time they spend watching films, soaking in the training room, running, lifting weights, and traveling to and from games, the number often soars to 30 or more hours a week.
For sports like basketball that stretch through a good part of the academic year, the situation is particularly striking. From mid-October through mid-March, and even later if the team makes the N.C.A.A. tournament, the players spend anywhere from four to six hours a day on their sport. From about 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. each day, the players watch game films, get treatment for injuries, practice, and then shower. They also lift weights twice a week and run twice a week. That doesnt even include the teams 27 games between late November and early March.
It just takes up so much of your time, says Ed Persia 04, cocaptain of the mens basketball team. You go home dead tired, and try to compete with the smartest and best students in the country.
Most Tiger athletes acknowledge the significance of the time commitment. Many say they compromise most on a social life and some of the intellectual extras that the university offers. You dont get to see people like Colin Powell when they come to talk there are just a lot of interesting things that youre not able to go to, says Judson Wallace 05, Persias cocaptain. Certainly some athletes find time to participate in other extracurricular activities Emily Kroshus writes for the Daily Princetonian occasionally, for instance, and Hannah England 04, a rower, finds time to be on the N.C.A.A.s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee but most limit themselves to sports and schoolwork.
Some athletes acknowledge an academic cost as well. Wallace says he knows that he spends significantly less time on some assignments than the people sitting to his left and right in class. When theyre reading a 200-page assignment, Im usually skimming, he says. Persia adds: I think every person on our team has to master the art of skimming. Students with more time are better able to evaluate what they are reading and relate it to other readings and such. So we athletes might not have as much to talk about in a precept setting or as much time to put into constructing a paper.
Persia, a politics major who has a 3.02 G.P.A., says his academic performance improves during the spring, when he can spend more time reading. When Im in my sport, I tend to put every ounce of energy into it, and subsequently my academics tend to struggle.
Tim Bowden 04 got a particularly clear sense of academic life with and without sports when he sat out his junior football season because of injury. One evening this fall, as he carbo-loaded with some football teammates in Frist Campus Center before a scrimmage, he recounted how easy life was when he didnt have to trudge down to the stadium each afternoon for hours on end. My grades went up pretty sharply, because I had those extra four hours every day, and I wasnt physically and mentally tired all the time, he says.
A few athletes attribute their academic underperformance, in part, to the social cocoon in which many players pass their time. Freshman athletes on fall teams, in particular, spend two intense weeks with their teammates before they meet any other students, and many say the friendships formed during that period are their strongest at Princeton. Teammates frequently wind up living together, joining the same eating clubs, and spending much of their free time together.
That powerful social network has its advantages, including a ready-made group of friends with upperclassmen who offer advice about maneuvering through Princeton. But it can be limiting, giving athletes a crutch that may prevent them from challenging themselves by risking exposure to students with different interests and backgrounds. In addition, it may have academic costs.
Tom Crenshaw believes that athletes in some sports particularly the major mens sports of football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and, at Princeton, lacrosse self-segregate because many come in feeling academically underqualified compared to other students at Princeton. From the beginning, you dont feel like you fit in, he says. All you read is how Princeton is the most competitive academic institution in the world. When you get here, its unspoken, but its, We got in here because of sports, so we have to stick together.
He and other athletes talk of upperclass teammates giving freshmen the skinny on which courses are easiest, and which departments are friendliest or which to avoid because of the time demands or academic rigor. (Some evidence suggests that athletes are consulting each other in choosing their fields of study: Of the 53 members of this falls football team who had declared a major by the start of the fall, 37, or two-thirds, were in just five fields: economics, history, mechanical and aerospace engineering, politics, and psychology. For comparative purposes, 944 of the 2,514 undergraduates who had declared a major, or about 38 percent, are majoring in those five fields.)
Teammates dont necessarily discourage each other from caring about academics, Crenshaw says, but they dont exactly push each other to challenge themselves, either. Its very tough to make a blanket statement out of it. Youve got some brilliant kids who are able to balance their involvement with the football program with being very serious students, and others who come in feeling academically inferior and look for the easy way out, he says.
Some athletes may spend their time at Princeton seeking the easy way out. But many of the hundreds of undergraduates who are recruited to play varsity sports say they chose Princeton over institutions like Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame, and the University of Virginia that would have given them full sports scholarships, and that they did so knowing that Princeton would treat them more like other students: no special tutoring or advising for athletes, and required independent work just like everyone else.
We dont get any breaks because were athletes, and I like that, says Kelly Darling 05, who plays field hockey.
The overarching picture that emerges, then, is of athletes who have come to Princeton because of the opportunity to combine high-intensity athletics with top-notch academics. My dad and I agreed that I should use my ability on the football field to get me into the best academic school I could, says Dave Splithoff 04, who has played quarterback and defensive back at Princeton. As athletes, were accustomed to setting our goals high. Why wouldnt you go to the best school you can?
Fred Hargadon, who retired last summer after 15 years as Princetons dean of admission, categorically rejects Bowens notion that having lots of athletes near the bottom of their classes necessarily suggests a problem. Referring to an admission concept known as the happy bottom quarter, he says: Look, youre going to have a natural bottom third of any class. In my view, its better to have those people be kids who contribute to the institution in some other way giving something to the institution, learning something in return. Those are going to be kids who are really happy to be at Princeton, even if their G.P.A. isnt as high as some of their classmates.
What would compromise Princeton, Tilghman says and here she agrees with Bowen is having students who do not care about academics. We have 1,160 seats in the class, and every one is precious. I have no tolerance for students who would say to me, I came here only to play field hockey. I dont want that student here; that, for me, is nonnegotiable.
Many professors agree. Professor Robert Tignor, a historian who has seen decades worth of athletes and other students come and go, says he can accept the idea that Princeton is admitting athletes with lesser academic credentials than their peers. The key issue for him is that the athletes must want to succeed.
Theyre all smart enough to do the work, he says. I just want effort. If youve got people who are not putting in a good effort, thats a waste. If they work hard, turn up for classes, do the reading assignments, and prepare for exams, thats what I need to see. And on the whole, he says, he gets it. Are there people who are just blowing the place off? Sure, he says, but theyre not just athletes.
In Bill Bowens eyes, Ivy League sports are broken. He and others believe that current admissions policies are dragging the Ivies down a road of ever-heightening professionalism that increasingly conflicts with the academic mission of an elite institution. He believes that the Ivies need to put more distance between themselves and the universities with high-powered sports programs, through a set of steps aimed at making athletes more representative of other students: reducing the number of recruited athletes, raising the academic standard for those who are recruited, monitoring the academic performance of those who are accepted, and encouraging athletic participation by nonrecruited walk-on students, among other efforts.
Bowen and other critics urge the Ivy institutions to shed their aspirations of competing nationally in Division I sports, and to focus instead on intraleague play. That, they say, would allow Princeton to recruit only those athletes who want to be at the University primarily for academics, rather than athletics, and hence narrow the widening divide between athletes and other students.
While Bowen thinks the wheels have come off Ivy League sports, the Ivy presidents concede that the enterprise needs more than a mere oil change. In the last year, motivated in part by concerns raised by Bowen and others, they adopted a set of changes that limit the number of recruited athletes an Ivy institution can admit in any one year, raise the minimum academic standards that athletes must meet to be admitted, and restrict the time players spend on their sports. The time restrictions prompted a firestorm of criticism from athletes and some alumni, and eventually were amended. (See PAW, September 10, 2003.)
I dont think were in nearly as bad a position as Bill thinks we are, says Tilghman. There are lots of excellences that we recruit to this university, and excellence in athletics is one of them. Some people may think that as an academic institution, we should place more value on playing the violin than running a 100-yard dash. But I dont put that kind of value on it.
Tilghman does not share Bowens belief that Ivy athletes are already too far out of sync with other students on their campuses but she does agree that the trend bears watching. The worst thing that could happen, given that 14 percent of the student body are recruited athletes, would be to have them be recognizably different from other students, she says. It would be devastating for the quality of the community, for the athletes, and for rest of the student body, too. Were working hard to make sure that never happens.
She rejects the idea that the Ivies should back away from national competition. Many students who are not athletes share that view, saying that their experience at Princeton is enriched by the chance to see their peers playing against the nations top athletes and teams. Not surprisingly, Princetons athletes are particularly vociferous on this point. Many of them say they would have been unlikely to have come if the Ivies did not try to compete with the best sports programs in the country.
It is exactly the challenge of trying to do it all to strive to match the best athletes in the country shot for shot and stride for stride, while at the same time keeping up with the best students and professors in the country that brought them to Princeton, even though that challenge takes its toll.
I guarantee every player on the team questions whether its worth it, and why theyre doing it, says Persia. At other times, I know they think that basketball is the best thing that ever happened to them.
He adds: I always say to myself, I could be learning much more if I wasnt playing a sport. But Ive still learned so much, just from being around so many smart professors and students. Thats why I came here.
Doug Lederman 84, a freelance writer and editor in Bethesda, Maryland, was until May managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In two books that he has cowritten, former Princeton president William G. Bowen *58 has forced a rethinking of the mission and role of sports in the Ivy League. Following up on The Game of Life (2000), Bowens new book, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, finds significant academic underperformance by recruited athletes at Ivy League and other selective institutions, and concludes that the colleges should set aside fewer admission slots for such athletes because they fail to take full advantage of the colleges precious academic resources. Bowens book has won praise from critics of college sports and helped prompt college presidents to consider changes in how their sports programs operate. It also has sparked complaints from coaches, students, and others that Bowen is an elitist who gives short shrift to the value that athletes bring to Ivy campuses. Bowen, now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke with PAW contributor Doug Lederman 84.
Youre pretty tough on college presidents about whether theyre doing enough about problems related to athletics. Did you pay enough attention to these issues when you were a president?
When I was in Nassau Hall, I suspected that everything was not as it should be. There were signs here and there of a drift, examples of students being admitted who probably shouldnt have been admitted. But there was no systematic evidence. It finally got to the point in the Ivies where we, the presidents, did collectively believe that the standards for admission had slipped sufficiently that we instituted the infamous Academic Index, which I invented. It was the right thing in that it did achieve what we set out to do, which was to stop the continuing slide in admissions in the big-time sports. (The Academic Index is a method of assessing the academic qualifications of admitted students, based on S.A.T. scores and high school class rank.)
What were the most important things you found in researching Reclaiming the Game?
What just screams out at you from the reams of data is how different the recruited athletes athletes who are on the lists of people coaches thought would really have an impact on their programs are, not just from the students generally, but from the walk-ons. The two most telling pieces of data in the book are, one, that the recruited athletes in the high-profile mens sports who either never play because of injury, or play very little once theyre on the campus, have essentially the same disappointing outcomes as those who play all the time. Meanwhile, the walk-on athletes who are playing a lot basically do fine; they are very similar to their classmates. So there is clearly something in the selection process that is driving this.
So Princeton is admitting athletes who are too focused on their sports?
We find that students who make it onto the coaches lists are students who are not only talented athletically, but have a focus and a commitment that in some instances borders on single-mindedness, to the sport, and perhaps to the coach and to the team. That inevitably affects how they allocate their time, what they think about when they wake up in the morning and are in the shower, what they choose to do with the extra half hour that somehow appears in the day.
To what extent do you see whats happening in athletics as indicative of a larger problem? Arent lots of students today musicians, mathematicians, chess players intensely interested in one thing?
Of course its indicative of something much larger. People specialize in all sorts of things. And it is concerning if you end up in a situation where you have lots of people ending up living in little silos of their own. There are people who are consumed by linear algebra. But linear algebra has a lot more to do, I would argue, with the mission of a great university than does being a volleyball spiker. Second, there is not nearly the evidence of compartmentalization, all-consuming behavior, in that case.
Some administrators at Princeton say that you are exaggerating the extent of underperformance by athletes, and that it amounts to athletes getting a G.P.A. of 3.2 instead of 3.6. Whats so bad about athletes getting degrees from Princeton with a B-plus average?
Its a mistake to think about this in terms of G.P.A. You need to think about it in terms of rank in class, because of the amount of grade compression and grade inflation. When you do that, you find that a recruited male athlete predicted to end up in the 45th percentile ends up in the 25th percentile. This is not a small thing.
But athletes contribute to these institutions in other ways, dont they?
At some of these schools, there are not just a few people occupying these places, but lots of people. Theyre occupying places that could have gone, in many instances, to very well-rounded students, many of whom want to play sports, but who also are eager to take full advantage of a very scarce educational resource. Princeton is a very privileged place. I would argue that it has an obligation to want to have its extraordinary educational resources utilized to the fullest. Im not just talking about grades here. Its about going to the odd lecture, participating in some new extracurricular activity, being part of a liberal-arts community. Its just hard for me to see how you justify assigning so many places at an educational institution to folks who seem to have a different agenda.
Where do you think the Ivies ultimately should compete? Many people believe that carrying out the ideas in your book would put the Ivies in Division III.
The Ivies themselves have to decide what they want to do. We are trying to point out the implications of where people are now, trying to point out trends, drifts, directions. And were trying to suggest some things that you could do if you were to agree this is not an entirely healthy state of affairs.
Many Princeton athletes feel picked on. Youre very clear in saying that you dont think athletics are nearly as important to these institutions as other things are.
I dont, but that is not insulting to the individuals. This is a book about policies, about systems, institutional priorities, and missions. The recruited athlete who comes to Princeton to give his or her all for the sport is doing exactly what that person was asked and expected to do. This is not in any way, shape, or form an attack on individuals.
Most of these athletes came to Princeton precisely because it gave them the opportunity to play and to try to achieve academically at the highest level.
If they were doing that, I would be thrilled. But the reality is that most of them are not. Its very hard to reconcile that set of claims and aspirations with 20 percentile points of underperformance. And even that understates the problem. If these people were distributed across the range of the university, as they were earlier on, and if they were indistinguishable from their classmates, I would say, three cheers.
Are you saying that a person with an athletes set of objectives is not the kind of person Princeton and the other Ivies ought to be recruiting?
Im saying that, in general, theres not going to be as good a fit between the mission of the place and the person who wants to hit balls farther than anybody has ever hit them, as contrasted with the person who wants to do the great experiment or write the great novel. And so Im saying its the obligation of the institution to pick and choose carefully not to eschew the person who runs fast or jumps high, but to look for other things, too.