Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

January 30 , 2002:
Student vs. athlete, an ongoing debate
Former president Shapiro's remarks rankle

By Kate Swearengen '04

The trouble with Harold Shapiro is that he did such a darn good job as president that no one wants to tell him when he's wrong. Which is a shame, because back in October, he made a comment about Princeton athletes that deserves further review.

Shapiro's statement was overlooked at the time, perhaps out of respect for his impressive achievements during his tenure as president, or perhaps because everyone was too busy criticizing the alum who wrote the cranky letter characterizing Princeton athletes as drunks. You know, the guy who said that athletes "use alcohol to pass time and as a means of interaction and common cultural communication." The implication being, I suppose, that alcohol is a powerful elixir that reduces Princeton's academic superstars to the same intellectual niche as its athletes. The great equalizer. Kind of like Cliffs Notes, but with a hangover.

I'm not saying that the alum who wrote that letter should be exempt from criticism, because he should be verbally flogged. A lot. But so should Shapiro, because in many ways, what he said was worse. Shapiro, after all, was speaking from a position of authority, and people pay attention to what he says. This is one thing when he's fundraising; it's another when he's trashing a considerable segment of the student body.

In an interview with PAW in October, Shapiro stated: "Here at Princeton a few years ago, I sat in on a freshman seminar on intercollegiate athletics taught by Hal Feiveson of the Woodrow Wilson School and Jeff Orleans, the executive director of the Ivy League. Just about all the students were recruited athletes. When I asked, 'How many of you would have come to Princeton if it were a Division III school?', not a single hand went up. These are great kids, but it was clear to me at least that they thought of themselves as athletes first and students second."

Athletes first. Students second. Gee, Hal, I dunno. I mean, isn't it possible to be equally committed to excellence in athletics and academics? Are you saying that an interest in sports necessarily precludes an interest in intellectual pursuits? The logic professors over in the Philosophy Department must be shaking their heads over this one.

Because, when it comes down to it, the statement you're making is not only patently wrong, it's also illogical. After all, you didn't ask a group of students interested in music if they would have chosen Princeton if it didn't have Jazz Ensemble or a cappella groups. You didn't ask a group of students interested in theater if they would have chosen Princeton if it didn't have Triangle Club or Theater Intime. So why are athletes different?

The bottom line is that the students you talked to chose to play lacrosse or basketball or soccer at Princeton, not at a Big 10 school. They could have gone to universities that would have let them play ball without the hassle of writing a senior thesis. Heck, they could have gone to universities that would have paid them to play ball. So the logical assumption is that these students chose to come to Princeton for another reason. And I'm betting it wasn't for the Pottery Barn out on Route 1.

Come on, Hal. You're supposed to be on our side. Your countrymen and women are practically carrying the crew and hockey teams, and you can't show a little support for Princeton athletes? You're a bad, bad Canadian. And praising athletes for being "great kids" just doesn't cut it, because that's the kind of compliment that comes in at the back door. It's like saying, "Johnny's not what you'd call a Rhodes Scholar, but he sure does run a mean quarter-mile. What a great kid." We are not amused.


You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu