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Finding balance between athletic recruitment, academics

There are 2,000 athletes at Princeton, on 38 varsity and 34 club sports. The vast majority of them are very much qualified to be here. Yet I do not think that all of them are, and if indeed all are, then I propose a simple policy change: end recruitment, and end the compromising of admissions standards. No one would deny that both go on here.

I have no particular distaste for physical exercise. When I first came to Princeton, I expected to play on the baseball team. I had played for four years on my high school team, and had played well: in my senior year I threw a no-hitter, went undefeated, and posted an E.R.A. under one for the year; if you wish, you may look in the high school sports sections of various New York newspapers from 1994 and find my name there.


Yet I stayed with the team here at Princeton for only about two weeks. There were three main reasons for my decision to take myself elsewhere: first, I was not a recruit, and the coaches made it pretty clear that there was no place for me anywhere but on the bench (as with most of the other walk-ons); second, I did not find the group of people there to be the sort who wanted to mix sports and the life of the mind as I wanted; and third, I found the time commitment to be too great for me to pursue my studies. Many other students have found themselves making similar decisions for similar reasons. This university is not nearly as successful as it would claim to be in integrating its sports and academics.

The teams here are, first of all, stocked by recruits whose academic credentials are not always as good as other applicants. A source in the administration has told me that the number of recruited athletes here is close to 25 percent of every class. He added that the University allows coaches essentially to submit lists of athletes whom they want, and the admissions office will take them, even if they have a lower academic index (an admissions criterion based on grades, test scores, and class rank), as long as the entire team's index is within one standard deviation from the rest of the pool. The University does not recruit for any other extracurricular activity, nor does it recruit for its academic departments. Yet, for athletics, there are as many as 1,000 recruits; the lowering of academic qualifications for athletes is more serious and more numerically significant than for any other group.

Second, the teams have almost professional demands on their time. Ms. Melissa Cully, in her letter to the editor (March 5), noted that athletes are at times required to give 30 hours a week to their sports team. Even for students with absolutely topnotch qualifications, that kind of time demand is not conducive to peak academic performance nor to the full engagement in an intellectual community.

"But athletics offers a training ground for leadership and other qualities not available from books and classrooms," someone may counter. I agree. Yet participating in student government does the same thing, as does running a student volunteer group, or managing a publication. In fact, I would claim that students develop leadership talents in the latter activities to an even greater extent than they would on an athletic team, because teams have professional coaches who decide who plays and what strategies the team will use. Yet there is no policy of recruitment or lowering of academic standards for leadership qualities demonstrated in these other extracurricular activities.

It is also said that athletics is important for alumni relations. This is true. Yet not all teams are equally important to the alumni. I propose that the University should decide which teams it will particularly cultivate, such as the basketball team or the football team, and cease recruiting for the other 36 teams. It should also be remembered that the alumni have not come out to support the building of the new stadium, while an alumnus has just started up a new teaching center here. As someone who in three months will be one of these supposedly sports-crazed alumni, I have strong doubts that all the alumni care only for athletics, without regard for its impact on the University's intellectual life.

I have not said much about the intellectual costs of Princeton's recruitment policies, for it should be obvious enough. For one, the admissions office has up until now not been able to maintain intellectual diversity while producing teams that have won 43 Ivy League titles and nine national championships in the past four years, and while earning the school a top-ten ranking amongst "jock schools" from Sports Illustrated. More than 50 percent of the students here are in five of the 32 departments. Excellent departments like German, Slavic Languages, Near Eastern Studies, Mathematics, Classics, Romance Languages and East Asian studies have more professors than they have seniors.


The University would never allow the football team to dwindle to only two members; why is it acceptable, at this institution of learning, that the German department should so be allowed to evaporate? Beyond academic issues, Princeton does not send people off to a wide variety of professions, and it certainly does not represent a diverse socioeconomic or racial spectrum. All of these things should be given greater weight than athletics in composing the undergraduate population.

And it goes beyond that – a lot of people have the experience of coming here and not finding the intellectual environment they were looking for. It exists – but more or less underground, and the general environment is one in which, for example, an allusion to Dante is bound to be attacked rather than appreciated. The state of learning here disappoints both professors and students, as many of them will frankly tell you: classes are often experiments in competitive silence, professors' office hours are unused, the spontaneous hour-and-a-half precept which senior professors romanticize about has disappeared, and the phrase "conversations that matter" will get little more than a laugh amongst people who know what this place is really like.

I do not propose that we adopt a policy of using purely academic criteria for admissions. The University should use nonacademic criteria, but weigh all extracurricular activities equally. Special treatment for athletics and athletic recruiting should come to an end. We do not need academically unqualified athletes and academically qualified athletes do not need preferential treatment to get in.

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