Not many books get written on Ivy League athletics, which is a shame. While the Ivy League may not be particularly important to the world of sports, sports are very important in the world of the Ivy League—with broad consequences for higher education. So the topic deserves a thoughtful journalistic book. Kathy Orton—a sportswriter for The Washington Post who set out, in John Feinstein-esque fashion, to chronicle a year of Ivy League basketball—might have written that book if she had put aside the rah-rah tendencies of sports journalism and grappled critically with her subject. It’s too bad she did not, because the story of Ivy League basketball is worth exploring, and it is a lot more complicated than is commonly thought.
First, my fan credentials: I grew up in Princeton and went to school there; and from the time I was eight through my senior year of college, I rarely missed a game. I still follow the team and go to games with my dad when I am home. I believe that the Princeton offense is one of the great strategic innovations in the history of basketball. (Although these days it is a lot more fun to watch when employed by other schools.) So I’m a fan—but over the years I’ve become a deeply conflicted fan. The reason is simple. As much as I enjoy the games, I know that there is something indefensible about the relationship between the Ivy League and sports. True, it’s a relationship that, directly at least, affects only a narrow slice of the country’s elite; but insofar as Ivy League schools educate a lot of future leaders, what goes on at these colleges and similar institutions—the values they teach, the cultures they cultivate, and, perhaps most importantly, the decisions they make about who will attend—actually has repercussions for society as a whole.
No one has criticized Ivy League sports more persuasively than William Bowen, the former president of Princeton. Two books that he co-authored, in 2001 and 2003, drew on a vast trove of data to show that many of the stereotypes about athletes at elite schools—the things that everyone knew but no one was supposed to say because they were stereotypes—were empirically true. Recruited athletes, he found, came to top colleges with lower SAT scores and received lower grades once there. Most interestingly, tracking students who entered college in 1989 as they went into careers, he found that Ivy League athletes were approximately 50 percent more likely than Ivy League students as a whole to go into the financial services industry. (Not that there is anything wrong with a career on Wall Street; but surely it is not controversial to believe that top colleges should generally be nudging students toward more idealistic careers.)
In addition, athletic recruiting was fundamentally different from affirmative action, which Bowen had defended in a previous book by drawing on similar data. There were understandable moral reasons why a college might want to give a boost in admissions to people from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, or people whom the natural lottery had deposited in disadvantaged economic circumstances. But what were the analogous benefits of essentially reserving more than ten percent of the highly coveted spaces in an incoming Ivy League class—and an incredible 20 percent at some selective smaller schools—for students who were recruited specifically to play sports? It was a good question, and Bowen had the temerity to ask it.
Orton nods semi-dismissively to Bowen’s research. To explain athletes’ lower grades, she quotes a Dartmouth professor saying that it is “not surprising” given the “number of hours they are expected to put in” for their teams. This assertion is both nonsensical (since plenty of other students put in long hours on extracurriculars without underperforming academically) and disprovable (since, as Bowen shows, “[r]ecruited athletes underperform even in seasons or in years when they are not participating in athletics”). But Orton is not interested in engaging with such complicated criticisms. She prefers a simplistic paean to the purity of Ivy League basketball and the scholar-athletes who play it.
It is true that the Ivy League, to its credit, is the only conference in Division I sports that does not offer athletic scholarships. “Basketball players at Ivy schools are admitted as students, not athletes, which means their financial aid is not tied to their participation in their sport,” Orton instructs readers. But while the Ivies do not offer scholarships, they do recruit—and because they recruit, some (though not all) of the recruits who end up there come as athletes first, students second. One of the striking things about Outside the Limelight is that several people confess, obliquely or directly, to this—though Orton seems not to notice. “This year I’m trying to put [basketball] in the driver’s seat,” says one Harvard player. “Now that I’m a senior, I’m trying not to worry too much about the classroom, but my mom will kill me if I don’t come home with good grades. It’s a real pain because there’s a lot of good students here so it’s very competitive.” Another Harvard player takes a semester off from school after getting injured so that he can extend his playing career. A Princeton player says this about his choice of college: “Basketball is the main thing in my life, so I was really trying to go with the best situation, and obviously that it was the Ivy League didn’t hurt.”
Of course, Orton is a sports reporter, and she is trying to tell a story, not write a policy tract. But as she winds her way through the 2005-2006 season—tracking Penn, Princeton, Harvard, and Cornell—I kept thinking that a bit more complexity in her portrayal of institutions and people would have made for a more honest reckoning with the drawbacks of Ivy League sports and a more engaging narrative. Was Princeton’s tyrannical coach—who thoroughly wrecked the program over the course of his three-year tenure—really an exemplar of good educational technique? Would his painful-to-watch tantrums directed at players have been tolerated had he been a professor instead? Does such behavior say anything about the tension between academic values and athletic values? The book does not pause to ask. Meanwhile, in her rush to deify Ivy League athletes, some of Orton’s flattery is condescending. Of the intellectual streak on Penn’s ’05-’06 team, she writes, “While the discourse could deteriorate into the ribald banter typical among young men their age, it did sometimes veer to topics usually not talked about in Division I locker rooms”—as if the relevant comparison for these players was to pre-professional college athletes at powerhouse schools, rather than to their fellow Penn students.
As a story purely about sports, Orton’s book is perfectly engaging, and anyone who follows Ivy League basketball will enjoy it, but it is crippled by the characteristic vice of most traditional sports journalism: it fails to establish any critical distance from its subject. The result is a largely one-dimensional tale of scholar-athletes thriving in the classroom while persevering on the hardwood. Such a tale minimizes, and in some cases ignores, the very real problems with the Ivy League’s approach to athletics.
It isn’t just that top schools reserve a large number of spots in their generally small classes for recruited athletes. Perhaps the least defensible aspect of the entire enterprise is how many resources go into identifying and wooing these athletes, even as comparable efforts to recruit other kinds of students are few and far between. Princeton hosts and supports an annual program that I run to help aspiring journalists from low-income backgrounds apply to elite colleges, but we only work with about twenty students a year, a tiny fraction of the students who could use our assistance. Every dysfunctional urban high school in the country has a valedictorian, and many of those high schools also have a high-achieving newspaper editor or debate club president. Unlike at more privileged high schools, however, too few of these students are encouraged by their teachers or parents to apply to top colleges. Meanwhile, hundreds of coaches from elite colleges scour the country for their next big recruit. Imagine if similar efforts were put into finding the next newspaper editor or the next theatrical talent, and finding him or her at an inner city high school. The results could be transformative for both higher education and the incentive structures at urban high schools. As long as elite colleges put sports on a plane above all other extracurricular pursuits—including many that are more closely tied to academics—this will never happen.
The answer, in the end, is simple: Ivy League schools and other similar institutions need to start treating sports like they treat the orchestra, the newspaper, and other activities—spreading the university’s recruiting resources evenly across all these extracurriculars and making no special compromises on admission standards for one activity that the school is not prepared to make for all others. Yes, there would be a drop-off in athletic talent. And yes, plenty of Ivy League basketball fans (including me) would have to adjust our expectations. But as anyone who has ever watched Ivy League basketball would attest, the charm of the league’s annual two-month-long round-robin tournament isn’t necessarily linked to how much talent is on the floor. Occasionally you get a team like this year’s Cornell squad, which briefly broke into the Top 25, or the 1998 Princeton team that went all the way to No. 8, but these are the exceptions. For the most part, Ivy League basketball isn’t played at a particularly high level—and, somehow, it still manages to be a huge amount of fun.
As long as all Ivy League schools acted together to change their approach, the playing field would remain even within the conference. The Harvard-Yale rivalry would still be meaningful. Penn’s home court, the Palestra, would still be one of the best places in the country to watch a basketball game. The Princeton offense would still be capable of catching better teams off guard (and would still be run more adeptly by other schools). And the country’s elite colleges, which claim to be institutions of high moral and intellectual purpose? They would finally have their priorities straight.
Richard Just is managing editor of The New Republic.