February 11, 2004: Letters

Athletics and academics

On my honor

Amos Oz and Chekhov

Coffee complaint

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Athletics and academics

Editor’s note: We received many letters about Doug Lederman ’84’s story on the place of athletics at Princeton and other Ivy universities (cover story, December 17) — most in opposition to views expressed by former president William Bowen *58. More letters will be published in future issues.


I take offense at Bill Bowen’s assertions that student-athletes are wasting Princeton’s most precious resource: admission slots. Do student-athletes underperform academically? According to his data, yes, they do. But the real question is what is Princeton University here to do?

Is Princeton here to educate holistically, or is Princeton here purely for the pursuit of academic excellence?

When that question is answered openly, only then can we properly assess the role of athletics in the education of undergraduates at the University and the practice of admitting the country’s best scholar-athletes. I contend that Princeton’s mission is not an academic one but an educational one. Athletics (as well as orchestra, Triangle, etc.) therefore have a key place in that education, and academic success cannot be taken as the sole measure of institutional success. Bowen and those who support his views make athletics seem like nothing more than a recreational activity wherein some measure of national or regional glory can be obtained.

The lessons I learned from my teammates (a more diverse group than the whole of the student body), my coaches, and my experiences on the track and the field are what I deem to be the most important things learned in my years at Princeton. I made a conscious decision to sacrifice a small bit of academic success for the opportunity to succeed athletically and in the community. For all of my hard work, I graduated cum laude in chemistry, received a Spirit of Princeton award, and was one of the most decorated scholar-athletes in recent history. But according to Bowen, my underperformance in the classroom means I did not make the most of my admission slot and therefore should never have been admitted. It is disheartening to know that the efforts of our student-athletes are underappreciated even within our own Princeton community.

Cameron T. Atkinson ’03
Nashville, Tenn.


While rival institutions strive to fill the classrooms with the best students, Princeton is special because it seeks exceptional people. This approach results in a student body composed of extremely gifted students with a diverse array of talents. While Lederman’s article focuses on the student-athlete, the reality of the situation is that the majority of Princetonians proudly carry the hyphenated title: student-something else. This creates a situation in which coursework serves to unify students, rather than define them.

Clearly the nature of a person’s extracurricular activity will determine its requisite time commitment. As one’s commitment to any one activity, such as athletics, increases, time spent on another, such as academics, will tend to decrease. This does not mean that Princeton’s athletes are less capable in the classroom than those who specialize in less time-demanding activities, nor does it mean that athletes are less interested in taking full advantage of the educational resources offered at Princeton. Rather, they exercise their option to share their talents within a different venue, and we should applaud our athletes for showing the courage to sacrifice an A-minus for a B-plus in order to represent the Tigers on the field.

Andrew R. Chadeayne ’01
Ithaca, N.Y.


I read with interest your article about student-athletes. I was, however, expecting the article to address the contribution sports make to a person’s education, character, and ultimately success in life.

Academics are the medium and tools with which students forge themselves during their time at Princeton, and play a role in their ability to be successful in life. Nonetheless, sports and the skills they require — focus, energy, teamwork —may also be important contributors to their future success. In my view, the greatest factors of success in life are intensity, energy, and a hunger to go further — three traits exemplified by Princeton student-athletes.

I am always impressed with the achievements and general contributions to society I find in the PAW memorials and wonder if Princeton’s ability to mix enriching experiences on campus, sports included, is not what makes it the greatest place of all.

John Oxenham ’91
Cheserex, Switzerland


William Bowen’s thoughtful criticism of Ivy League admission policies ignores one factor (if not others): Many employers specifically seek out Ivy League athletes who have engaged in competitive sports. Their drive, energy, and ability to live in a competitive universe makes them more attractive prospects than those with higher grades who do not play competitive sports.

So the issue is not just who maximizes the academic virtues of Princeton, but also who best applies their educational experience in the real world. Perhaps such a long-term view offers a better measure of who maximizes the benefits of a Princeton education and becomes a leader in our society. Until these results are examined, let’s stay with the athletic status quo.

Paul B. Firstenberg ’55
New York, N.Y.


Reacting to the article “What Price Victory,” several of my teammates from the 1951 football season have urged me to address writer Doug Lederman’s characterization of me – and, by extension, my teammates – during our undergraduate years. In a phone conversation, one of them protested, “Kaz, you come across in that article as an exploited jock, completely preoccupied with football.”

To mollify my teammates and to set the record straight, I need to respond. First, in his article Lederman writes, “Kazmaier . . . recounts being barred by the football coaches from playing a spring sport because they wanted him to focus exclusively on football.” I never made this patently false statement. If anything, my freshman year coaches insisted that I study in the spring, particularly since I had come from a very small high school. To attain an honors achievement level, I chose not to participate in any spring sport thereafter, nor play basketball my senior year.

Second, quoting from a fall ’51 Time magazine article, Lederman writes, “[Kazmaier] let his studies slide during the football season.” True enough, during our nine-week season, football was my first priority. The rest of the school year was an entirely different matter. After the football season, I pulled my share of all-nighters, spent countless hours in the library polishing my thesis, and — in Bill Bowen’s words — “utilized the extraordinary resources of the university to the fullest.” In his selective referencing of the ’51 Time article, Lederman passed over the following, “[Kazmaier] rates his serious interests in this order: 1) friends, 2) studies, and 3) football”.

Now, over 50 years later, I’ll stand by that assertion. What disturbs me about Lederman’s article is his misrepresentation of my experience to support his (and Bill Bowen’s) contention that high-level athletic competition is incompatible with Princeton’s mission — a conclusion with which I completely disagree. Further, I would argue that many men and women of great character have been disparaged by the assumption that athletes do not belong at Princeton.

Richard W. Kazmaier Jr. ’52
Key Largo, Fla.


In his article, Mr. Lederman holds up a much-needed mirror to Princeton, asking tough questions, and seeking clear answers from the likes of former president Bowen, coauthor of the study Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, and President Tilghman. When combined with first-person sketches of campus life by today’s student-athletes, the account is a “must read” for everyone who loves Princeton and wants the best for the institution and those for whom it matters most: the students.

In my experience precepting in the politics department, I have found that most student-athletes in the big-name sports of football, basketball, and ice hockey are quickly identifiable. Many of them appear to suffer from fatigue, they sit together and are generally less attentive and less willing to participate in discussions, and they often have trouble completing written assignments on time. I sympathize with their plight: As one basketball player explained it, she starts each day working out with weights, before she spends three hours a day at practice, and this routine runs between October and late March.

Whatever the value and rewards of competing at a high level in N.C.A.A. sports – and there are many — the price paid by these students is a high one, maybe too high.

I believe the University should promptly respond by empaneling a special commission of faculty, staff, alumni, and students to examine thoroughly the issues raised by Dr. Bowen and examined in the PAW article to propose whether reforms may be appropriate. Four years at Princeton if spent primarily in Dillon Gym are surely a questionable use of this university’s great resources for learning and growth.

R. William Potter ’68
Princeton, N.J.


I am delighted that former president Bowen and others have finally confronted the existence of professional athletics at Princeton and other college campuses. From my days at Princeton in the 1960s onward through my teaching career at the University of Maryland and the University of California, Davis, I never have understood why we accord professional athletics a place in higher education. As far as I know, the U.S. is the only country where athletics of this kind coexist with higher learning. There is a place for professional athletics, of course, but that place is not the universities. I think it is high time that Princeton join the University of Chicago and a few other institutions in eliminating athletics as a money-making program.

Geerat J. Vermeij ’68
Davis, Calif.


In the past a faculty member mentioned to me that the administration was attempting to make Princeton another University of Chicago. Based on Bowen’s opinions, it appears he was correct. It would be a shame.

Vincent J. Menna ’61
Doylestown, Pa.


Bill Bowen questions whether the elite universities ought to continue their current policy of accepting a disproportionate number of athletes. He questions the detrimental impact this has on the university, and the misuse of precious resources that it represents. Yet this policy of accepting more athletes has a further impact on our country.

Parenting has become America’s most competitive adult sport and the gold medal of success is elite-university admission. In taking in so many athletes, the elite universities are also having a detrimental effect on parenting and children’s athletics. Rather than athletics programs being places where children are free to have pleasure, as well as to compete, they have been transformed into near-professional arenas whose coaches tout Ivy League acceptances among the program’s graduates as reasons parents ought to sign their children up. Parents tell each other that children must play competitively by seven or they’ll have no chance of an Ivy admission; they study acceptance patterns to see whether Princeton, Yale, and Harvard are now looking for female ice hockey players or male squash players, and urge their children to take up these sports. As I have written, this is no longer the behavior of only over-the-top parents; it has become endemic. To succeed, young children are exposed to abusive coaches, unrealistic expectations, and demanding schedules that compromise other important aspects of their development. Orthopedic surgeons report that this has led to an alarming rate of sports-related injuries among five- to 12-year-olds.

Debating whether or not elite-university admission policies ought to play this role is pointless: They do. They have become the guidelines that ambitious parents around our country use to make child-rearing decisions. Heeding Bowen’s advice would be a small step not only in making Princeton – already rated as the nation’s premier university – an even better university. It might begin a process of taking a serious look at, and perhaps changing, the deleterious effect current admission policies at elite colleges are having on child-rearing in America.

Alvin Rosenfeld s’76
Coauthor, The Over-Scheduled Child
Stamford, Conn.


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On my honor

Professor John Fleming *63’s Perspec-tive on integrity and the honor code (December 17) was not only thought-provoking, but it was one of the most beautifully written essays I have read. Not only are current students well served by having this extraordinary individual as faculty adviser to the Undergraduate Honor Committee, but we are all blessed in having access to the work of this gifted champion of the written word.

Stephen A. Crane ’67
New York, N.Y.


I was surprised to read John Fleming’s suggestion that the honor code might be “quaint” in the context of the complex variety of assignments now given Princeton students. It still seems quite simple to me: You don’t take credit for work that’s not your own.

If he was referring to the difficulty of policing the code, perhaps a return to grading on a curve might be a beneficial change. It’s a zero-sum game where cheating penalizes those who play it straight. Thus, it might give honest students a personal incentive to participate in enforcing the code. It would also rein in grade inflation, further burnishing a Princeton diploma as a credential.

I was also surprised to read that a recent winner of the lucrative Shellabarger Prize — a plagiarist, as it turned out — was dealt with in a “rightly confidential” manner after he had graduated. Why not charge him with fraud, recover the money, and publicize the larceny to the fullest? If the University isn’t willing to take a public stand in enforcing the code, why should it expect its students to do so?

George E. Miller ’54
Manhasset, N.Y.

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Amos Oz and Chekhov

My respect for Amos Oz notwithstanding, I should note that his remarks quoted in the December 17 issue of PAW are overly optimistic and inaccurate in regard to Chekhov (Notebook). Oz would like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved in a Chekhovian ending, in which everyone is unhappy but alive. In point of fact, The Seagull ends with a suicide, The Three Sisters with a duel and the killing of Tuzenbach, and The Cherry Orchard with poor Firs immured and ready to quietly give up the ghost. I sincerely hope that the false optimism in Chekhov’s regard does not also apply to the Geneva Accord possibilities of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. In both cases, one suspects, attention to detail will serve the protagonists well.

Nicholas Rzhevsky *72
Stony Brook, N.Y.

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Coffee complaint

Too bad that in your chatty two-page article on coffee hot spots in Princeton (Notebook, December 17) there was no room for even a passing mention of some of the issues roiling the coffee industry, such as the major humanitarian crisis facing coffee-producing countries (due to a worldwide glut) or the real inroads that socially responsible (fair-trade and shade-grown) coffees are making. I guess those issues don’t merit the attention of coffee drinkers in Princeton.

Instead, we get a charming picture of coffee drinking that floats free of any real-world considerations. (“It’s all good!” the article proclaims.) That’s Princeton in the nation’s service, all right.

Marina Skumanich ’80
Seattle, Wash.

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