Williams hosts debate on role of athletics in college admissions

Williams College Debate Union (WCDU) hosted a debate entitled “Should athletics play a strong role in the admissions process?” in Thompson Memorial Chapel last Thursday. The two guest debaters were Christine Brennan, a sports correspondent for USA Today and sports analyst at ABC News, and Dr. Murray Sperber, a professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University. Both guests were accompanied in the debate by students. Brennan, who argued in favor of the issue, was joined by Brandi Brown ’04. Sperber, an expert on the issue who was written several acclaimed books, was accompanied in his opposing arguments by Robert Hemm ’04.

Hemm began the debate with a five-minute discussion of the opposition’s main points. He stated definitively that “it is not our position that athletics are not an important part of Williams,” but “policies which allow admission to be based on ability go too far.”

Hemm repeated the old adage that students go to Division I schools to watch sports and attend Division III schools to play sports. While pointing out the positive values that athletics instill, such as “teamwork, fair play, and determination,” he criticized other aspects of college athletics, including their increasing commercialization. It has “evolved from an educational pastime into a full-blown industry,” he said.

Hemm also criticized the fact that college athletes are often academically less prepared than other students. He attributed this fact mainly to excessive time commitments, explaining that many athletes are forced to forego many academic experiences due to their commitment to sports teams. Hemm emphasized that when a team is composed largely of athletes who have been admitted solely on athletic ability, decreasing the possibility of walk-ons.

Finally, he suggested that the long-term effect of athletic recruitment would be that fewer members “have the intellectual tools to succeed” due to their focus on athletics. Previous values of well-rounded “renaissance men and women” are waning, according to Hemm, who argued that we need to “examine exactly what values we want to instill in our young men and women.”

Brown presented the represented the affirmative argument, stating that athletics should indeed play a role in the admissions process. While “good athletic teams should not be the main goal of a school,” she argued, they “help distinguish Williams from those schools which are academically equal,” but less successful athletically, specifically Amherst and Swarthmore. She argued that all applicants need some other non-academic qualifications, some trait or talent that will increase the diversity of a school. Not just athletes, but also the “violin prodigy and math wizard” fall into this category, according to Brown.

The role of athletics in admissions speaks to a “flaw in society,” according to Brown. Simply stated, “sports attract people,” she said. Even if athletics did not factor into admission,” said Brown, people would still support a winning team and have a greater incentive to apply to those schools. Brown noted that the “main goal of a school should be academics” and discussed the excellent professors and resources available for students, both athletes and non-athletes. She also said that being able to handle the academic workload and playing sports are “not mutually exclusive,” and that minimum admission standards are met when making admissions decisions regarding athletes. After the introductions by student debaters, Sperber delivered his arguments. He stated that admissions should seek out the well-rounded student, but that they “now seek the well-rounded class,” which tends to be full of students with extremely specialized abilities. He attempted to temper his comments by making clear that he is not against sports or unfamiliar with them, and briefly discussed his own athletic background as a basketball player in high school and at Purdue University. One of his key points was that athletics has changed since that period in time, and has become increasingly specialized. Because of this change, he believes that student athletes are now becoming “physically and mentally exhausted young men and women who academically underachieve” and whose “commitment to regular lives overwhelms them.” He based his argument for decreasing the role of athletics in admissions partially on statistics such as lower graduation rates among student-athletes and rank in class. Often, college athletes rank in the bottom one-third of their class, an “indicator that they are not getting the maximum out of their education.” Again referencing the issue of overcommittment, he also gave the example of athletes in his classes at Indiana University who drastically improved their academic performance after injuries forced them to quit athletics.

Additionally, athletes statistically have a 50 percent better chance of being admitted, which Sperber said “raises questions of fairness.” He noted that the argument that a strong role for athletics in admissions often leads to increased racial and socio-economic diversity, but added that in the majority of sports, athletes have “very similar backgrounds to regular students…sometimes wealthier backgrounds.” Sperber concluded by saying that “I love college sports, but I love college education more.” He emphasized his argument that admissions should not continue to seek “a well-rounded class with a contingent of specialists,” but rather should look for the well-rounded individual.

Brennan’s argument followed that of Sperber. While she clearly stated that she agreed with Sperber on several issues, such as the fact that there are “many excesses in college sports today,” she brought forward several opposing views as well.

She enlarged the question at hand from the issue of athletics in admissions to that of “are big-time sports good for a college community?” She discussed the issue in terms of her own experiences as an alumna of Northwestern University. While she attended the university in an era when the football team hardly ever won a game, she spoke with pride of the team’s 1995 season, in which they did well enough to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl. She described how she and other alumni reacted with great surprise and pride to the team’s amazing season and how it positively affected the university through increased donations. She went on to explain that college athletics are, of course, much more than “feel-good Saturday afternoons,” but that they also provide important role models. If athletics were de-emphasized at college, according to Brennan “it would not change just the face of men’s basketball and football,” but it would change women’s and men’s minor sports as well. “Do we want to lose Mia Hamm?” she asked.

After all four speeches, there was a time for members of the audience to pose questions to the speakers. Audience members asked Sperber for his opinion on the importance of the lessons players learn on the playing field as well as those in the classroom. He replied that “you can experience that at 20 hours a week quite well,” but there is a problem when it escalates and takes up more time. He also noted that it “doesn’t say sports franchise at the gates.”

Garry Sanders ’02 asked Brennan why we should buy into a system that emphasizes sports over other things such as academics, framing his question in terms of “Why should we have athletes for role models instead of scientists?” She replied that there are many things that are more significant than sports, but that she sees herself as a “practical-realist” in terms of the significant role that sports play in society.

The evening ended with closing arguments from both Brown and Hemm. Hemm responded to the evening’s debate by reiterating that colleges should seek the well-rounded individual rather than the well-rounded class and that colleges and universities should reflect the fact that intellectual capital, rather than sports experience, is the key to success in today’s society.

Brown replied that the well-rounded individual will actually decrease overall diversity in an academic institution and that the values provided by athletics, such as “commitment, hard work, and dedication” are important in addition to intellectual capital.

The WCDU conducts its debates according to the British Parliamentary system, in which the audience decides who has won the argument. According to the audience, Sperber and Hemm presented the more effective argument. Final tallies indicated that 70 people voted for Sperber and Hemm’s presentation of the negative arguments, and 53 voted for Brennen and Brown’s presentation.

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