Brown expands on topics explored in “The Game of Life”

Three years after the publication of The Game of Life threw fuel on the ongoing debate about the role of athletics in the academy, William Bowen is back with a follow-up study. Released today, the book is co-authored with Sarah Levin, a 2000 graduate of Harvard University.

The book, Reclaiming the Game, focuses specifically on the NESCAC and Ivy League schools, some of America’s most selective colleges and universities. Williams, which competes in the NESCAC, is discussed throughout the book.

Extending the analysis begun in The Game of Life to the Class of 1995, Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University, finds a divide between intercollegiate athletes and other students, highlighted by persistent and spreading academic underperformance of athletes relative to that of other students with similar backgrounds and test scores.

“In no other country in the world is athletics so embedded within the institutional structure of higher education as in the United States,” the authors say. “From our perspective, the challenge is to strengthen, not weaken, the contribution that athletics makes to the overall educational experience of students and to the sense of ‘community’ that is important not only to current students but also to graduates, faculty members, staff, and others who enjoy following college sports.”

President Schapiro said Bowen makes a compelling case in Reclaiming the Game, but that Williams has already examined the issues over the last couple of years.

“If it’s a wake-up call, it is certainly not to Williams College,” Schapiro said. “The institutions that haven’t had active discussion of these issues might be spurred on. We’re not one of them.”

Michael MacDonald, professor of political science and chair of the Williams Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Athletics when it met in during the 2001-2002 academic year, is quoted in the study and also praises the book on its back cover.

“This will be a standard reference,” MacDonald says. “The book deals especially well with the impact of increasing competition, specialization and professionalization on coaches.”

The book makes extensive use of the “Report on Varsity Athletics” written by the ad hoc committee, as well as reports by Middlebury and Amherst. President Schapiro said he was glad the authors used the Williams report as “we have nothing to hide.”

Though the College initially put the Report on Varsity Athletics up on its website, it has since been removed. According to Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs, the report was taking down because “it seemed to have served its useful life.”

Other reports issued years before the Report on Varsity Athletics, a 1998 report on “Class Section Size” for example, remain on the College’s website as of this paper’s deadline. MacDonald said there remains interest in the Report on Varsity Athletics. “People have gotten in touch with me looking for copies of the report,” he said.

Schapiro said the College is happy to provide a copy of the report to anybody who requests one.

In the book, MacDonald cites the professional development and personal satisfaction of the coaching staff as the major driver behind college athletic programs. He compares the athletic program at schools like Williams to the graduate programs of most research universities.

The point is made more forcefully by an anonymous director of athletics who told the authors that there needs to be a return to a basic commitment to educational values.

“Fewer and fewer coaches have a real interest in education as broadly defined,” the athletic director said. “Not many have a background in educational methodology, and more and more of them are focused just on their own sport.”

Schapiro said Williams has great coaches who understand the culture of the College. “That we’re still winning even though we’re tightening up admissions is a testament to how good they are,” Schapiro said. “I’ve run graduate programs, I’ve had Ph.D. students. It’s nothing like what we do here.”

According to MacDonald, the comparison holds. “In graduate programs, professors identify and encourage their most talented students. On teams, coaches do the same thing,” he said. “Their relationships with their teams are especially close, very satisfying and a source of professional recognition and different in kind than their relationship with other students.”

MacDonald emphasized that he does not feel this is an indictment of coaches, whom he believes teach valuable life lessons. He feels that this merely underscores the necessity of examining how athletics programs currently fit into the College’s mission.

“If athletics teaches educational and life lessons, shouldn’t we make them more accessible to ordinary students?” MacDonald asked. “Should we focus the lessons on our best athletes or should we discharge our educational mission by making varsity sports available to more of our students?”

While The Game of Life could only examine differences between varsity athletes and the rest of the student body, the new study is able to differentiate between recruited athletes – those who were on coaches’ lists presented to admissions deans – and all other athletes.

Bowen found a significant admission advantage given to recruited athletes at NESCAC schools. Among male applicants in the 1999 pool, a recruited athlete with an SAT score over 1500 had approximately a 95 percent chance of gaining acceptance to a NESCAC school. For all other male applicants, just under 70 percent of applications with this SAT score were accepted.

Further, while over 70 percent of recruited athletes with SATs in the 1300s were accepted, the acceptance rate was under 40 percent for all other male applicants.

Bowen found similar discrepancies between female recruited athletes and the rest of the female application pool.

Beyond the admissions advantage, Bowen found that “recruited athletes underperform significantly, whereas most walk-ons do not.” Academic underperformance is defined in the study as “the phenomenon of a group’s having a lower GPA or rank-in-class than would be predicted on the basis of pre-college achievement and other observable characteristics.”

Also, the study finds a correlation between the size of the admissions advantage given to athletes and the degree of academic underperformance: “As the admissions advantage increases, the underperformance coefficients become more negative,” the authors found.

Williams’ Report on Varsity Athletics, however, did not find evidence of academic underperformance by athletes at Williams.

MacDonald said that it’s possible that Williams is capable of “skimming the cream” due to our excellent academic and athletic reputation and attracts athletes who are unlikely to underperform. This possibility, however, would have implications on the colleges we compete against and could lead them ultimately to decide not to compete against us.

“They’re not going to quit tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “But if they have to keep digging deeper and deeper into the talent pool then eventually they’re going to ask whether it’s worth it.”

Though Bowen and Levin find significant problems with athletic recruiting, and urge an effort at the conference and institutional level to address these problems, Schapiro argued that it is in the best interest of the institution to let as many people know about Williams as possible.

“When [football Head Coach] Dick Farley brings in a group of really good recruits, he invites me to come and talk to them about the academic programs,” Schapiro said. “Being able to make the case of going to a preeminent academic school with a first-rate Div. III program, you need to get the word out.”

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