Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Reforming American Universities: The Place of Varsity Athletics

with 2 comments

by Weiner

In one of the better of the 8 billion pieces about reforming American universities, Peter Brooks in the New York Review of Books (hey, that rhymes!) runs down what’s wrong with many of the well-known critiques. We’ve been through some of these arguments before at PhD Octopus, so I won’t rehash them here now. Instead, I’d like to point to one sentence that struck me in Brooks’ piece, when discussing Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ contribution to the discussion, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It. Brooks notes:

They want universities to… abolish varsity athletics (good again, but even William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who has studied this subject more deeply than anyone I know of, has given up on that reasonable but impossible task).

This passage hit home, especially since I just witnessed, in person, one of the greatest sporting moments I’ve ever experienced: the Harvard Crimson men’s basketball team defeating the evil Princeton Tigers for at least a share of this year’s Ivy League title (see Kyle Casey‘s wicked dunk above).

You see, I’m a big sports fan. I grew up living and dying with the Montreal Expos (mostly dying), fell in love with professional boxing, and have tended to enjoy most sporting events, always rooting for the underdog. At Harvard, I rooted for the Crimson, and also covered sports for The Crimson, our daily paper. I covered a variety of sports, though my main beats were wrestling and women’s hockey. In my sophomore year I travelled to Duluth, Minnesota where the women’s hockey team, staffed with several Canadian and American Olympians, lost in overtime in the National Championship game to the hometown University of Minnesota-Duluth. Despite the devastating loss, it was a great experience.

As time went on, however, I became a bit disillusioned with varsity athletics. I came to disdain the athlete worship I detected on campus, and felt that Harvard and other elite schools were compromising too much of their academic standards in admitting some star recruits. I read William Bowen’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, and Bowen’s follow-up, with Sarah Levin, Reclaiming the Game, and I sympathized with their arguments that the intercollegiate athletics rendered university admissions too biased, and had a pernicious effect on college academics and campus life.

And yet, when I stormed the court last night following Harvard’s win, when I congratulated freshman guard and St. Bruno, Quebec native Laurent Rivard in French (Rivard took a key charge in the waning moments of the game),  I felt one of those sports-euphoria moments that made me forget the institutional criticisms of Bowen’s books. College sports, at their best, provide a sense of school spirit and camaraderie that professional sports can rarely match.

I haven’t made up my mind on this issue. It will probably depend on my mood, and on the circumstances. But last night, I was definitely in favour of keeping varsity sports around. And I still am this morning.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 6, 2011 at 10:22

Posted in Academia, education, sports

2 Responses

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  1. Yeah, I still don’t like those two books. This says it all:


    March 6, 2011 at 12:13

  2. I saw Scott deliver a very similar address, possibly the same one, at Harvard. I found him totally unconvincing, as I did in rereading this piece.

    There is absolutely no doubt in mind that many athletes, particularly those in so-called “high-profile sports” but also in several others–baseball, wrestling, certain women’s sports, get significant preferential admissions treatment, more so than do similarly talented students in other extra-curricular pursuits: artists, musicians, poets, etc.

    In my opinion, some varsity athletes, particularly some male varsity athletes, also have a detrimental effect on campus social life (in a similar way that Final Clubs did at Harvard, and as I suspect similar clubs do at other Ivies). That is just my opinion, though I think I’m not alone here.

    Scott’s only serious argument is one of values: are varsity sports worth it. On balance, is it worth it to make these admissions and academic compromises for the sake of school spirit. Sometimes, I think yes. Other times, I think no.

    I’m not sure how different it would be if the Ivies were in division 3, or if they stayed in division 1 but tried to maintain even stricter academic standards for athletes. Maybe it wouldn’t work. But to me the data is indisputable, and the only question is one of values.

    In general, I am in favour of universities becoming more academically-minded, not less, and I think that varsity sports, like corporate recruiting, is in some ways an obstacle to that. Again, sometimes I think the compromise is worth it, as sports can add something positive to campus life. But we should understand this as something of a compromise.

    All this is also excluding any talk of the NCAA’s problems in scholarship and/or non-elite schools, the fact that athletes often receive mediocre educations, take bribes, and live lives totally divorced from the rest of the student body. But that is another matter.

    At elite schools, I think the athletes live lives that are mostly similar to those of non-athletes, which is as it should be. The more different the athletes’ lives are, the less we feel any connection to them. I actually think the Ivies strike a decent balance. I have softened my position on varsity athletics since then, but I think it’s silly to think that they have no pernicious effects at all on academic and campus life.


    March 6, 2011 at 21:37

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