Report assesses athletics’ impact

The Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Athletics (FCA) released a comprehensive report on the impact of athletics on academic and social life at the College to the faculty on May 3. Among the report’s many findings is the fact that Williams has become an athletic powerhouse since the 1990s and that the development of a clear statement on the value of athletics to the whole community is needed to judge the benefits and costs of athletics’ impact at the College. The Committee’s 29-page “Report on Varsity Athletics” was released to faculty in advance of a discussion of the FCA proposals at this Wednesday’s faculty meeting.

The FCA, which was established last spring, has spent a year analyzing data, conducting interviews and interpreting surveys to get a sense of what role athletics play at the College. “By the end, I think we had a coherent, integrated, reasonably nuanced and, I hope, balanced picture of the role of athletics at Williams,” said Michael MacDonald, Woodrow Wilson professor of political science and FCA chair.

The Committee consisted of four tenured members of the academic faculty and two members of the athletic faculty. In addition to MacDonald, the academic faculty members included Chris Pye, class of 1964 professor of English; Stephen Sheppard, professor of economics and Lee Park, associate professor of chemistry. The athletic faculty was represented by Mike Russo, head coach of men’s soccer, and Julie Greenwood, head coach of women’s tennis and women’s squash.

The athletic review was largely sparked by the debate on campus and across the nation last year in response to the publication of James Schulman and William Bowen’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Value.

“We formed the committee because a number of questions regarding the optimal

role of athletics at selective liberal arts colleges have been raised in recent years,” said Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College. “Our hope was that an ad hoc committee would push forward the discussion in a productive way.” Schapiro declined to comment further on the FCA’s findings until after the faculty discussion on Wednesday.

The report states that the College’s athletic success in the 1990s was unparalleled by any other Div. III institution. The average team winning percentage was 76.1 percent in the first half of the decade and increased to 77.1 percent in the second half of the decade. That success translated into national acclaim as Williams won the prestigious Sears Cup in five of the six years that it has been awarded.

The primary cause of this level of achievement, according to the report, is the athletic faculty. “There can be many reasons for such success,” reads the report, “but chief among them is the talent and dedication of the coaches – we know that not just from their … records, but from the testimony of so many of the athletes we have spoken with.”

This success has come despite the fact that Williams teams play in the most restrictive conference in the nation. “At Swarthmore, which many of the academic faculty want us to be like. . . [the soccer team] can play 20 games while we play 14,” said Russo. “They begin their pre-season Aug. 19; we begin it Aug. 29 because of league rules. They have an off-season in the spring where their coach can coach them for five weeks and they play five scrimmage games; we have no non-traditional season.”

While many members of the community are concerned that athletics play an excessively large role in shaping the overall academic and social atmosphere at the College (42 percent of the academic faculty believe varsity athletics detracts from the educational mission of the College), not everyone is convinced that there is an athletics problem at Williams.

“We are a victim of our own success,” said Harry Sheehy ’75, director of athletics. “When you win, people start looking at you and figure you must be doing something wrong. The truth is that we’re winning because we’re doing things right.”

“The good news is Williams is really good at [athletics],” said MacDonald. “The other news is that we have to think through the implications of our success. Many people associate Williams with athletics and the College needs to figure out what that does to the character of the institution.”

Importantly, the FCA found that the majority of students approves of the contributions of the College’s varsity teams. This news is tempered, however, by the fact that about 40-45 percent of non-athletes believe that the athletic culture is too pervasive at Williams and over half of all students think that their status at athletes or non-athletes defines them at Williams.

The report describes a social scene at Williams that is fairly segregated along athletic lines, according to non-varsity athletes. “Teams are characterized as ‘dominant’ or ‘significant’ in the social life of the College by three-quarters of [non-athletes], but less than a quarter of them describe teams as ‘dominant’ or ‘significant’ for their lives personally,” reads the report. “The non-athletes describe a less integrated social reality.”

“Athletics plays a large part in defining social life at Williams since most house social chairs are athletes and the majority of members in ACE subgroups are athletes,” said Mark Rosenthal, College Council (CC) co-president and 2002 football tri-captain. “They are simply the most active in creating social life on campus.”

The report also finds that athletes, especially male athletes, are significantly more likely to be involved in disciplinary situations than non-athletes: athletic admits were more likely than the student body as a whole to receive probation, suspension or expulsion; about twice as likely to receive “discuss/warnings;” and three times as likely to be found guilty of honor violations. Fifty-six percent of the disciplinary action taken against athletes involved members of two teams.

The FCA also examined the relationship of athletics and admissions, an issue that has been studied extensively by the Provost’s Office. The Committee found that a successful athletic program probably mitigates some of the concerns people have regarding the quality of admitted students recruited specifically to play on an athletic team.

“We have winning teams; athletes want to play for winning teams; we do not, therefore, have to dip deeply into the pool of good athletes who are plausible students,” reads the report. “We get a disproportionate number of good students from the good athletes we are selecting from.”

This may not, however, always hold true. For certain teams that compete for athletes with the Ivy League schools, such as the football team, the well of talent is already low by the time Williams gets in the game. “Football is a numbers game,” said Dick Farley, head coach of football. “If you want someone to help us, then go to the Ivy League presidents and ask them why they need 45 [football tips a year] when we only have 14.”

This year, Williams has cut down the number of athletic “tips” it gives from 72 to 66. The term “tip,” according to the report, is misleading. Rather than tipping the sc
ale for an athlete when all else is equal, the report says that tips “more accurately should be seen as ‘coaches’ preferences.’ Coaches are allocated a certain number of choices per year, depending on the sport,” which must be ratified by the admissions department. The athletics department, according to Sheehy, is getting close to the point where it cannot remain competitive given the few slots it is allowed.

“We have really come to the point where our coaches can’t make any mistakes,” Sheehy said. “The school has to decide how competitive it wants to be.”

The report emphasizes that the College must make a statement as to what role athletics should play for the entire community.

“The lessons [of athletics] are taught to students, who often are recruited because they already are accomplished athletes, and are not really available to students who are indifferent as athletes,” reads the report. “We note in this context how rare the ‘walk on’ athlete has become on many of our varsity teams.”

“If we’re going to stress athletics because it teaches our students lessons then we must justify why we restrict who can play on teams on the basis of ability,” said MacDonald. “One coach told us that if he uses athletes who are not tipped, then he had essentially failed in his recruiting.”

“What other program is available to 31 percent of the student body?” asked Sheehy. “We are fulfilling our responsibility to provide one piece of a segment of the community’s education.”

Some would like to see the College expand its junior varsity program so that students not able to play at the varsity level can still play organized sports. “We do suggest in the report the possibility that junior varsity programs be expanded to afford even greater opportunities,” said Greenwood. “That question will ultimately be one of financial and faculty resources, as well as space [in terms of access to athletic facilities].”

While the benefits of an athletic program are not available to all, according to the report, “it inevitably generates externalities for the rest of the College in the form of weaker students and scheduling conflicts.”

While the report finds that some athletes, particularly in a handful of sports, are weaker students, it did not find any academic underperformance. “What Schulman and Bowen find is varsity athletes underperform those students who have similar ratings at the time they are admitted. We found that that is not the case at Williams,” said MacDonald. “Athletes, as far as we could ascertain, are not underperforming in relation to students who have similar academic profiles at the time they are admitted.”

Though students generally do not find that athletics detracts from their education, the academic faculty is significantly less enthusiastic. Thirty-six percent of the faculty believes that varsity athletes are less engaged than non-varsity athletes; in Division II departments, where at least 66 percent of students flagged as athletes major, 52 percent of the faculty thinks that athletics detracts from the educational mission of the College.

“One of the real strengths of the curriculum [according to the Committee on Educational Policy report last year] was supposed to be small courses, discussions and tutorials,” said MacDonald. “Insofar as we have a student-centered mode of teaching, it puts a lot of responsibility for the success of the class on students. If students are strong and engaged it makes for a wonderful educational experience, but if students are disengaged and have other things to do and make a discussion course a low priority, then the course as a whole suffers and it suffers even for those who are engaged.”

In terms of grading, the FCA found that while the GPAs of varsity athletes as a whole are 0.13 lower than that of non-varsity athletes, and the GPA of male varsity athletes – excluding two teams, which were not identified – was 0.08 below male non-varsity athletes, “the mean GPA of the two weakest men’s teams was much lower than that for male varsity athletes in general.”

Further, the FCA identified 38 of the 805 courses offered at the College as “easy” courses. “Football players. . .are 47 percent more likely than students who are not football players to take easy courses, and men’s ice hockey players are 93 percent more likely than other students to take easy courses,” reads the report.

Farley, however, does not necessarily see this discrepancy in course difficulties as a problem. “If you don’t swim real well and you jump in the Williams pool, you probably want to stay in the shallow end,” said Farley. “I’ve never told a kid what course to take or what major to take, but I’m not sure you want to throw a kid in over his head.”

The academic faculty also expressed concern over scheduling conflicts that arise as a result of athletic commitments; the FCA report sees these conflicts as emblematic of the problems arising from the coexistence of athletics and academics. “The failures of the division of the day, as attested in the faculty survey, do not result merely from bad communication. They also derive from the College’s commitment to athletics,” reads the report.

The FCA stresses that the academic faculty needs to reassess its responsibilities. If the faculty feels that students are not performing well academically or attending class consistently, then the faculty has an obligation to reflect those concerns through their grading.

“If academic faculty is awarding satisfactory grades, they ought not to be surprised that students and coaches regard the academic performance of athletes as satisfactory,” reads the report.

“They [the academic faculty] may not be able to bench them [athletes who don’t perform in the classroom], but give them what they deserve,” said Farley. “If they deserve a C, give a C; if they deserve a D, give a D and if they don’t go to class, flunk them and let them go to summer school.”

Finally, the report calls for better communication between the coaches and faculty. Though enhanced communication can “only improve a situation in which coaches feel unappreciated and academics feel intruded upon,” communication cannot solve all the conflicts.

“It’s always tempting to say that all the problems the College encounters are due to a lack of communication,” said MacDonald. “The College is many things and it embodies different values. What we need is a decision principle to adjudicate conflicts that arise among our different commitments.”

The FCA has submitted four proposals for consideration at the faculty meeting. The proposals call for the establishment of a standing Athletic Committee to oversee the relationship between athletics and the intellectual and social life of the College, the Dean of the Faculty to develop more explicit standards for the evaluation of athletic faculty, the faculty to affirm athletes as representative of the student body and the faculty to endorse the Calendar and Schedule Committee’s Proposal on “Exception 3” to the Division of the Day, which suggests that faculty may allow athletes to miss a week’s worth of cla
sses for athletic events. The FCA also recommended that the faculty engage in a discussion on whether or not the College should require a minimum GPA for team captains.

The proposals call for the Athletic Committee (AC) to consist of six members – a chair, one faculty member from each of the three academic departments and two members of the athletic faculty. The first job of the AC would be to formulate a mission statement for the role of athletics at the College. “The mission statement shall declare the goals and rationale for athletics, offering an integrated vision of the role of varsity, junior varsity, club and intramural sports and PE at Williams, and shall set forth the terms for assessing how each component of the athletic program contributes towards the central educational mission of the College,” reads the report.

“The College needs a coherent understanding of what varsity athletics is supposed to do so the College can ascertain what the benefits are and what the costs are,” said MacDonald.

“Athletics is an essential part of the Williams culture – otherwise, we’d be more like Amherst or Swarthmore,” said Ching Ho ’03, College Council co-president. “An ‘education’ is often seen as a split between curricular and extra-curricular – I am a sound believer that athletics should complement an academic education.”

Though the report makes a point of calling athletics extra-curricular, some disagree with this distinction. “We are clearly co-educational,” said Sheehy. “We may not be academic, but we are definitely educational. When I coached basketball, I wanted my basketball course to be the most difficult course my players took at Williams.”

The AC would also be empowered to assess the status of athletics on a team-by-team basis – taking into account factors such as “the academic performance of players on the teams, the disciplinary record of players on teams, the academic ratings of the players at the time of their admission to the College, the compatibility of the scheduling demands of teams with the division of the day and the historical record of the teams according to these criteria.”

The AC would be able to take disciplinary action against a team that displays an unsatisfactory record after being assessed by the aforementioned criteria. Though the Committee’s disciplinary power is not unlimited, it would be able to penalize specific teams by reducing the number of admissions tips a team receives, eliminating tournament play for teams and suspending players from teams if infractions occur.

The FCA’s recommendation that the faculty discuss the idea of instituting a minimum GPA for team captains has caused controversy. The FCA emphasizes, however, that it merely is endorsing a discussion about the idea and is not having a vote on the matter.

The argument in favor of a minimum GPA is threefold. First, there are concerns that a captainship may be too much for some people to handle. “For people whose GPA is low enough that they’re in some kind of academic difficulty, adding the burden of being captain to that difficulty is probably unwarranted, unwise and, you might even say, unfair,” said Sheppard. Captains are also supposed to be examples of the academic ideal at Williams. Finally, captains can convey an ethos to the team, argue the plan’s supporters. The plan’s opponents, however, feel that a minimum GPA requirement is inconsistent with non-athletic College policies; other campus leadership positions, such as Junior Advisors, have no minimum GPAs requirements. Such a policy would also be difficult to implement as a student’s GPA could fluctuate and shows a lack of trust in the value the athletic faculty places on the balance between athletics and academics.

“It’s pretty intrusive for another body to tell us, if they don’t know our team at all, who should be captain and who shouldn’t be,” said Russo. “Many of us have been here for a long time and we’ve all had chances to leave. I haven’t left because it’s a special place. There are students who are very bright but also very interesting kinds of people here. I think if we did away with athletics and just had a total intellectual component here with nothing else, it would be a pretty sterile place.”

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