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Reclaiming the Game’

In response to:

Jocks and the Academy from the May 12, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen and Sarah Levin show that at many of America’s most selective colleges and universities, the gap between the academic qualifications and performance of recruited athletes and other students is large and growing. Bowen and Levin propose a number of reforms, including reducing substantially the advantage recruited athletes enjoy in the admissions process.

Benjamin DeMott’s misgivings about the Bowen-Levin analysis [“Jocks and the Academy,” NYR, May 12] seem to rest on three assumptions: (1) that admissions advantages for athletes are a vital strategy for recruiting “lower-class” students to elite colleges and universities (“Reducing the number of athletes at top colleges…would have the effect of reducing opportunities for many lower-class applicants to gain admission”), (2) that the reforms Bowen and Levin advocate would sharply reduce the number of athletes on campus, and (3) that those reforms would entail “the elimination of excellence” in athletic competition at such places. None of these assumptions stands up to scrutiny.

Bowen and Levin’s data do indicate that male athletes in the “high-profile” sports of football, basketball, and hockey have, on average, somewhat lower incomes than other students, but the data reveal no consistent pattern for women’s sports or for other men’s sports. Yet admissions preferences for athletes are significant and growing across all categories of sports at the colleges and universities Bowen and Levin study. There are strong reasons to want more economic diversity in the student populations of high-prestige colleges, but tilting toward athletes in admissions is a highly inefficient, and in some cases counterproductive, way to get there. Indeed, the modest admissions preferences for students from lower-income families—more modest than existing preferences for athletes—advocated by Bowen and colleagues in a new book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, are a far superior route.

What of DeMott’s presumption that Bowen and Levin would like to see fewer athletes in the Ivies and the leading liberal arts colleges? DeMott seemingly fails to grasp the vast difference between wanting to reduce the advantage enjoyed by athletes in the admissions process and wanting to reduce the number of students who play varsity sports. As things stand now, many capable athletes who enroll at top colleges wanting to compete at the intercollegiate level never get the chance, simply because coaches prefer to populate their teams with those still more talented athletes whom they recruited. It is certainly likely that restricting athletic preferences in admission would reduce the “quality” of teams, measured in some absolute sense, but it is far from clear that it would reduce the number of students eager to work hard in their sport and compete vigorously against their peers.

And so we come to the third point. Would this lowering of the “quality” of teams mean a reduction in “excellence” in sports at these colleges and universities? It is hard to know what to make of such a decontextualized conception of excellence in sports. If absolute quality of performance is the criterion of excellence, there simply are no excellent football teams at the most selective colleges and universities and there haven’t been for many years, since any one of them could be destroyed by Florida State or the University of Southern California. Of course, if the standard is set by the New England Patriots, neither the Trojans nor the Seminoles are excellent either. Excellence in athletics is inherently comparative, always relative to some standard that determines who the competitors are. Whether we look at high school volleyball, or middleweight boxing, or masters’ swimming, competitive excellence is understood in a context defined by the way the pool of competitors is shaped.

If it came to pass that all the members of the Harvard and Yale football teams were students who had been admitted to those great universities without regard to their athletic prowess, would the Harvard–Yale game be less exciting? Would the contest mean less to those young men who met on the field? Would it be played with less intensity? It is hard to see why any of those things would be true, just as it is hard to see why women’s basketball games would mean less to the players (or, of much less importance, to the fans) if the players’ average height were 5‘11” instead of 6‘3”.

Somehow these fine academic institutions, who do not aim to make money from sports, nor to launch students into professional athletic careers, have gotten into the bizarre position of going out to find students for their sports. Bowen and Levin simply want these schools, instead, to provide sports for their students—an effort that, if successful, would indeed amount to “reclaiming the game.”

Michael S. McPherson

President, The Spencer Foundation

Chicago, Illinois

Benjamin DeMott replies:

In Reclaiming the Game Bowen and Levin repeatedly praise Michael McPherson for skillfully managing the deemphasis of football at Macalester College during his tenure as president of that institution. And in this letter McPherson displays impressive familiarity with Sports Culture USA at its various levels.

But the letter badly misrepresents my “key” assumptions, and totally misses the point of my “misgivings” about Bowen-Levin. I did not write (and don’t believe) that the Bowen and Levin reforms would reduce the number of athletes on elite campuses, nor did I address the subject of “the quality of teams,” comparative or otherwise. My comments on the role of athletic scholarships in fostering recruitment of lower-income students figured in but a single sentence of a five-thousand-word piece.

The piece argued that in the course of pressing their case against hypocritical promotional statements by elite universities touting institutional devotion to academic excellence, Bowen and Levin become spokespersons for ill-judged denigration of athletic excellence. Their book awards excessive space to overheated anti-jock statements by professors and nonathlete students and to reports of conniving and near corruption by coaching staffs. And, throughout, the authors implicitly endorse reductive versions of the nature and meaning of athletic achievement. My review included discussion of several texts that directly or indirectly criticize such reductiveness. Dipping into one or more of these texts might enlarge Michael McPherson’s vision of the subject.

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