What standards govern the admissions policies of the country’s most “selective” institutions of higher learning, i.e., the prestigious schools with the highest standards of admission? Often not the advertised standards, according to the authors of Reclaiming the Game, a book aimed at exposing and ending a scandal in American academic culture. The supposed key factors determining admission are SAT scores, rank in class, parents’ money and degrees, teachers’ recommendations, the applicant’s performance of after-school good works, and evidence of multiple talents (the applicant plays the tuba, tight end, Hamlet).

William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin claim that a different and seldom-publicized factor—athletic talent—frequently outweighs all the others, that coaching staffs regularly exercise decisive power, and that selective universities rarely tell the truth about the extent to which the demand for top athletes in varsity sports determines admissions policies. The authors are troubled by the “opportunity costs” of these policies—the phrase points to the number of academically strong applicants who are turned away when slots are reserved for athletes who are inferior students. They urge that the universities in their study take concrete steps toward reform.

The book is the second recent scholarly study to center its discussion of admission standards on athletics. The first, The Game of Life (2001), was also coauthored by Bowen, former president of Princeton and now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, collaborating with James Shulman, creator of the College and Beyond database. That book revealed that sports programs run by Ivy League and other elite liberal arts colleges richly reward promising athletes who accept offers of admission. The programs don’t ape the practices common among pay-for-play programs at major sports-obsessed public universities—they don’t pay bonuses for signing, or provide “allowances” and special “bonehead” curricula, and the like. They do, however, offer combinations of financial aid, tuition grants, and post-graduation perks (such as introductions to alumni capable of helping graduates get good jobs). Both the admission of academically underqualified applicants and their favored treatment result, the authors claimed, in

a persistent and widening split between academics and athletics at selective colleges and universities that offer no athletic scholarships, do not compete at the Division I-A level [of the National Collegiate Athletic Association], and presumably exemplify [the] “amateur” ideal.

Bowen and Shulman pressed their findings on college presidents and the latter responded with demands for more details—more empirical evidence. Reclaiming the Game answers that demand.

Working with a new collaborator, Ms. Levin, a Mellon Foundation research associate and former All-American collegiate athlete, Bowen starts the book with an account of recruiting practices, coaches’ methods of influencing admissions policy, and the academic choices and performances of college athletes. Thereafter comes extended analysis of the so-called “academic-athletic divide,” defined as “the growing disjuncture between intercollegiate sports and the academic core of selective colleges and universities.” In their final section Bowen and Levin give a lengthy list of reforms that they believe could reduce this divide.

The book’s case rests on information supplied by a large group of selective institutions (their participation was secured by guarantees of anonymity). The schools include eight Ivy League universities, all eleven members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, three women’s colleges, several coeducational liberal arts colleges outside the Northeast, and four affiliates of the University Athletic Association—private urban universities that deemphasize certain athletic programs.1 In addition the authors commissioned papers by athletic directors, conducted interviews with coaches, admissions deans, college presidents, and faculty members, and reviewed internal self-studies by individual colleges.

What emerges from this research is substantial ground for regarding as false public assertions about admissions policies and academic merit that are made by many elite institutions. The authors stop short of forthright indictments. They write that the “serious issues” in admissions “have to do with policies and priorities, not…with deceit or underhandedness,” and they go to lengths to avoid judgmental assertions. When a group of college presidents, shown incontrovertible evidence of the untruthfulness of their official statements, respond with chuckles, jokes, and “good-natured bantering,” Bowen and Levin seem more relieved by the distraction of the banter than impatient with it. And the passages in their book in which they describe themselves as “discouraged” or “unsettled” by their findings are phrased in language notable for its solicitude for those who caused their discouragement:

We have…noted occasional instances in which schools portray academic outcomes on their campuses in ways that differ, sometimes markedly, from the actual situation, as revealed by data…. We mention no names, since data for individual schools are confidential and we have no intention of embarrassing individuals or institutions in any case; moreover, we recognize that the explanation for such contradictions may rest primarily on lack of knowledge of what is really happening. But it is still troubling to see such discrepancies….

Unmuffled indignation does sound intermittently in these pages—protest about “differences between what schools say about their athletics programs and what really goes on,” for example. Close to the end, moreover, the authors cite the danger that untrue but “high-sounding statements of [academic] principle” will swell the tides of cynicism now flowing on and off campus:


Truth-telling is important, especially for institutions that pride themselves, as colleges and universities should, on inculcating respect for evidence and for their own unequivocal commitments to honest rendering of facts and to faithful reporting. There is something unsettling about reading stories describing the “purity” of athletics at the non-scholarship schools when so many of their leaders are well aware of the compromises that are being made in fielding teams. There is enough cynicism today about the capacity of institutions (whether they be corporations, churches, colleges and universities, governmental entities, or foundations) to be what they claim to be that we certainly do not need additional instances of misreporting.

The facts that go farthest to inspire cynicism about universities are, in the authors’ minds, those documenting the gap, at highly selective institutions, between announced and actual admissions standards. The standards are described in, among other places, college catalogs, which assert that this or that university strenuously seeks (as one among many puts it):

men and women of intellectual promise who have demonstrated qualities of mind and character that will enable them to take full advantage of the College’s curriculum…, qualified applicants from different races, classes, and ethnic groups, students whose several perspectives might contribute significantly to a process of mutual education within and outside the curriculum…applicants possessing the intellectual talent, mental discipline, and imagination that will allow them most fully to benefit from the curriculum and to contribute to the life of the College and of society.2

Reclaiming the Game tests such statements against the extensive information amassed about recruiting practices since the 1980s, detailed data from the surveyed schools about the students entering in 1995 and about the entire admissions pool of those schools in 1999. The evidence establishes that:

å? Applicants identified as top prospects by coaches and included on lists of priority candidates submitted by athletic departments to admissions committees have a significant “admissions advantage.” At four Ivy League schools for which complete data was available, they are nearly four times more likely to win acceptance than applicants of comparable academic talent who lack this endorsement.

å? In the most selective small liberal arts colleges close to 45 percent of the places for males in each entering class (more than 30 percent of female places) have been reserved in recent years for candidates whose chief distinction derives from achievement in a sport rather than from academic or scientific pursuits. (In private universities 25 percent of men and 19 percent of women are athletes, and more than half of those athletes are recruited—i.e., admitted on the recommendation of coaches and widely referred to as “coach-admits.”)

å? Nearly half of all recruited athletes are drawn from the lower end of the SAT distribution of the applicant pool—a group from which few candidates or none lacking athletic prowess ever gain admission.3

å? Four fifths of recruited male athletes and about half of recruited female athletes at highly selective in-stitutions rank academically in the bottom third of their undergraduate class.

å? Recruited athletes earn “far lower grades than what might be expected on the basis of their incoming academic credentials and demographic characteristics.”

å? Colleges that conduct studies of how recruited athletes behave find that they are “about twice as likely as the student body as a whole to receive ‘discuss/warnings’ [for behavior] and [are] more likely than the student body to be found culpable of multiple offenses, and receive probation, suspension, or expulsion.” They are also “three times as likely to be found to commit honor code violations [i.e., cheating] than the student body as a whole.”

Bowen and Levin painstakingly analyze the factors they regard as pivotal in creating the present situation. Among them are: “specialization of athletes” in a single sport beginning in early childhood; “professionalization” that turns coaching into a full-time, year-round job, but without the broader educational responsibilities coaches were once assigned; the “allure of national championships”; and the ever-higher academic standards nonathlete applicants must meet. The reforms the authors propose are specific and clearly presented. They include agreements among colleges limiting the numbers of athletes they recruit; new, higher standards for the academic evaluation of recruited athletes; assessment of coaches’ records that take greater account of the academic performance of athletes on their teams; better integration of athletes into campus life.


Reclaiming the Game acknowledges earlier reform proposals, particularly those of the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who, by criticizing the overemphasis on sports in higher education, launched a national debate on sports at selective universities in a speech delivered a full quarter-century ago. But the authors believe that the need for reform has since grown more urgent. They argue that the divide between recruited athletes and other students has steadily broadened, that the gap between announced standards and realities has already endangered the integrity of these institutions, that trustees and administrators are squandering resources they’re charged as stewards to conserve, and that continuing the present policies will soon destroy any chance regular students might have to “learn the lessons that sports can teach….” The research on which these arguments are based is thorough, and the problems dealt with are, without exception, serious. Judged on its own terms, Reclaiming the Game is a useful contribution to the cause it supports.


It isn’t, however, a book that can be read without reservations. Some of the practices it uncovers are passed over too casually. For example, to circumvent their ban on athletic scholarships, selective schools are increasingly awarding “merit scholarships”—awards originally designed for first-rate students—to recruited athletes who are third-rate students. The book’s account of the factors shaping the present situation seems often to mistake results for causes. Nobody who’s heard active, influential alumni berating an elite college president for “his” successive football losses to an arch-rival will accept the notion that the “professionalization of coaching” has been a major cause of the academic-athletic divide.

Bowen and Levin would be more persuasive had they concentrated on the seemingly genuine unhappiness suffered by some alumni when their alma mater loses to a rival. That reaction owes much to the expansion during the past half-century of the numbers of people seeking higher education, as well as to the pervasive effects of marketing values and competitive ratings, brand-name battles, contests over hiring academic stars, and intensified desire among newly affluent meritocrats for sharply distinguishing proofs of status (and grounds for personal pride): “my” college isn’t just number one in the US News rankings; it’s the league champ. In pre-meritocratic times, losing teams had less power to diminish reputations, depress alumni self-esteem, and slow endowment drives.

But my chief reservations about Reclaiming the Game result less from its thin analysis of the reasons why sports are overemphasized than from the narrowness of its vision. The authors frame their discussion of the academic- athletic divide in ways that seal it off from other divisions in society itself—not only those of race and ethnicity, class and faith, but the subtler divisions that separate excellence in physical performance from excellence in intellectual activity, and knowledge based on experience from abstract learning. It seems all too convenient for reformers to discuss the divide between academics and athletes apart from its larger social setting. Reducing the number of athletes at top colleges—a change the reformers advocate—would have the effect of reducing opportunities for many lower-class applicants to gain admission (see below); centering discussion of reform on the comparative academic ability of applicants diverts attention from politically troublesome issues of class and privilege.

But publicity can’t be escaped for long—not in a relentlessly democratizing culture resentful of hierarchies. Commentators and politicians increasingly lament the “evil” of divisiveness in our society (without correctively addressing it). The academic-athletic divide that Reclaiming the Game treats as an isolatable phenomenon is obviously one among many symptoms of the daunting problems of cultural unity and disunity, education and miseducation, literacy and illiteracy now tearing at American society.

Bowen and Levin dissociate themselves on the second page of their book from anti-jock hostility, asserting that “we identify strongly with [the] pro-sports mindset.” Later they say athletics is an “enormously rewarding” activity that teaches important “life lessons” and is good for the body and mind. They’re alert, moreover, to charges that “particularly at the colleges…athletes are not taken seriously by professors,” and that “academically oriented faculty… may be less than welcoming to aspiring athletes, and in some cases may be guilty of stereotyping.”

But virtually all such statements in favor of sports have a pro forma quality in view of the book’s central argument. The authors want to cut the number of highly skilled athletes on campus because they believe that such athletes, lacking in book-learning, have little to contribute to the liberal educational enterprise. They devote considerable space to reports of professors, students, and faculty expressing anti-jock feelings while offering little to stimulate either intelligent criticism of such feelings or serious inquiry into what superior athletic talent involves. They are eloquent about professorial and student frustrations with arrogant athletes whose negative attitudes wreck classroom morale, with coaches who cosset them, and with presidents and trustees who ignore the privileged treatment of athletes. And time and again we hear the voices of teachers angry at some sports heroes—bullies who treat scholars with near contempt, pollute the atmosphere with displays of boredom, and use their own back-row solidarity to put down intellectual ambition whenever it shows its individual face.

As a former teacher I know something about this anger, having felt it myself at many moments—but the moments of anger at jock bullies that I remember were usually conflicted ones. My sympathy with serious students and eager learners was strong and instinctive—but it was leavened by my impatience at the wasteful, reflexive hostility these students often expressed toward athletes.

My mixed feelings owed a good deal to the historical period, of course—the restless aftermath of the Sixties, the time of scorn of “establishments,” academic and otherwise, and of belief in the sanctity of open doors and the meanness of bans and barriers. The age of pot, rock, and wild but sane war protest was also a period of dawnings of awareness of privilege—how it dominated academe, why one had hitherto been oblivious of its workings, what changes if any were feasible. A small professional minority of liberal outlook became active in the founding years of organizations that developed unconventional approaches to higher education—state humanities councils, the National Humanities Faculty, others.

Some in this minority more consequential than myself pushed foundations to support new teaching initiatives. I and others used our leaves to teach in urban public schools or in black colleges—venturing into activities that mockers of political correctness came to indict as stupid guilt trips. (One sometimes defended oneself by invoking John Dewey and others who held that democracy requires practical engagement and full communication with fellow citizens.) The problem of anti-jock hostility was hardly central to those activities, but expressions of that hostility by students and teachers regularly reflected a sense of class or race entitlement and superiority, and hence became part of a broader landscape of injustice, stirring the misgivings I mention.

I speak of all this in attempting to account for the difference between the attitudes I remember and those of teachers quoted in Reclaiming the Game, and also to record that my conflicted feelings about anti-jockism still arouse no shame. Doubtless superficiality and sentimentality sometimes smudged the ideals of mutual respect and bridge-building between academic and nonacademic kinds of excellence that found expression during that period. But more than a few of us thought that because gifted athletes were admired by most Americans—in some sense represented them—they had a claim in our kind of society to a place in elite institutions. There were also some sensible forebodings about crises ahead for a self-preening republic inattentive to its divisions, too accepting of gated wealth and dogmatic conceptions of “taste” and “intelligence.”

And it is a fact that some admirably humane writing in that period reflected such beliefs and forebodings. Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, published in 1979, brilliantly reconceived the labor of “remediation” for students who needed help—and in the process raised the possibility that a few rich institutions daring to commit themselves, at every rank, to a new conception of their democratic responsibilities might in time achieve moral and intellectual leadership of the larger society, not simply of higher education. The classrooms that such writers as Shaughnessy helped readers imagine during this period were places wherein those—jocks included—who were not among the conventionally well prepared and intellectually articulate could usefully join the talk. If most students in the room were ignorant of Schiller’s claim that man “is only fully human when he plays,” or ignorant of Plato on man at his best being “God’s plaything” (hence obliged to “play so as to please God”), some of them might know a text or experience that brought excellence in athletic performance alive as a physically expressed thought.

What experience and what texts? And to what end? Ultimately many texts came to hand, some of them works dealing, directly or indirectly, with sports. They are responsive to intelligence on the playing field and impatient with those who obtusely deprecate it. They introduce the concept of physical genius, and some suggest incidentally that the arrogance of sports heroes can serve as a defense against being judged according to stereotypes. I think here of Beyond the Boundary, C.L.R. James’s evocation of heroic cricketeers; of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Physical Genius” (comparing Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Jordan, and neurosurgeons) and David Sudnow’s Talk’s Body (on keyboard feats of the “improvisatory hand”); of Bill Bradley’s books, most notably Life on the Run, and Bill Russell’s extraordinary memoir, Second Wind. I think also of a half-dozen interviews with pro athletes possessing articulate imaginations—the best of them a striking piece by the English professor David Bradley about Isiah Thomas, then a Pistons’ point guard (currently the Knicks’ president). In that piece Thomas talked penetratingly about the fusion of mind, emotion, and aesthetics in “the beautiful game” at which he excelled, and described the varieties of information that entered into his moment to moment effort, as court general, to “read the rhythm and flow of the game.”4 This interview and others like it overturn assumptions about the necessary inferiority of athletes and the impossibility of fruitful communication between mental and physical talent.

It bears repeating that Bowen and Levin nowhere malign athletes or speak scornfully of sports in their own voice. Part of their purpose in Reclaiming the Game—ensuring that students of modest athletic gifts aren’t excluded from the rewards of team play and competition—is decently inclusive if lacking in appreciation of excellence. Yet the fact remains that Bowen and Levin are so preoccupied by the overemphasis on sports in colleges and universities and by the excessive privileges of recruited athletes that they put into doubt not merely the desirability but the very possibility of a purposeful encounter between academic and athletic excellence. The impression builds that only an extreme Sixties sentimentalist would center even a modest amount of social hope on the encouragement, in classrooms, of such encounters.

Campus sports establishments are represented in Reclaiming the Game —despite many earnest qualifiers—as tyrannical and greedy. Lengthy tabulations detail the dollar costs of “the present-day process of building intercollegiate teams” (the average small and selective liberal arts college in New England, coping in 2001–2002 with cuts in academic instructional budgets, spent roughly $2 million on athletics). According to the authors, a cunning manipulativeness surfaces time and again in athletic departments. Coaches include up to twice as many gifted athletes on their “admit lists” as their teams need (to counter the threat posed by recruited stars who, once on campus, quit team sports). Coaches shrewdly exploit the country’s class system (their admit lists favor public school seniors over preppies because boys and girls of means have a weaker sense of loyalty and indebtedness to their recruiters).

And the “average” gifted athlete emerges as nearly always clueless about the how and why of learning. Bowen and Levin quote at length from elite college committee reports—documents asserting that jocks take up positions as observers rather than participants in classroom discussion and academic life, that jocks treat intellectual seriousness as a strategy adopted by the physically uncoordinated searching for status they can’t earn on playing fields, that jocks’ relationships with nonathletes are “demoralizing.” Professors hold that a “dumbing down” of classroom expectations is in progress, that “coach admits” tend to “sit in the back row and do nothing,” and that, as teaching becomes more interactive, “one-fifth of the student body cannot seem to interact, and this affects everyone’s experience.”

There’s a quantity of somewhat contradictory complaints holding simultaneously that athletes are a helpless minority excluded by their own attitudes and defects from academic life and that athletes are the dominant force on campus—a group capable of consigning nonathletes to powerless irrelevance. “Something akin to a culture of athletics” dominates entire schools, the Williams College Report on Varsity Athletics claims, adding that

athletes, who are often drawn and brought to [Williams], because they are athletes, feel comfortable here socially. They do not think they preside over social life, but other students believe that they do. Athletes live and socialize together. Moreover, a majority of non-athlete students feel defined as non-athletes, over half of non-athlete students feel athletics is too pervasive here, and over half of our non-athlete students feel too much importance is attached to belonging to teams….

The greatest concern of the faculty…is evidence of anti-intellectualism, of clear disengagement and even outright disdain, on the part of varsity athletes…. Such an attitude is especially troubling because it affects the entire chemistry of a class…. One faculty member was sufficiently discouraged by the impact of athletes that she had come to feel it is sometimes better if athletes skip class. Then, at least, they do not taint the rest of the class with their attitude….5

These are not trivial complaints; they are made in good faith, and the repugnance they express isn’t unique to college classrooms and the elite professoriat. It can be heard wherever educated, anxious voices talk about Sports Culture USA—about violent hockey dads and soccer moms…overpaid, drug-abusing, wife-abusing stars… obscene tax-waiver grants to corporations building stadiums for profit in cities with public schools in ruins… the vacuous employment of sports jargon (handoff, red zone, slamdunk, etc.) by bureaucrats and politicians who apparently covet macho images…multimillion-dollar salaries for college coaches…brawling in the stands between players and fans… steroid scandals.

The disgust and anger stirred by these phenomena in the larger society resembles that stirred by excesses of sports idolatry on campus, and similarly draws attention away from major underlying problems. It’s one thing to deplore pre- and post-collegiate excesses, commercial and other, in American sports; it’s another altogether to think freshly about the social functions of sports in a fragmented society, and about relations between human excellence of different kinds and intellectual culture. Reclaiming the Game uncovers the need for such fresh thought—but the need can’t be met by thinkers inclined to see little but gain in the elimination of athletic excellence from selective campuses.

What is required is, first, severe critical scrutiny of faculty cant about problems of instruction and differences between jocks and nonathletes. Examples of cant abound in faculty committee reports that run on about “tainting” by athletes. When classes go flat and lifeless, teachers, deans, and students blame the bored population of recruited athletes. They do not assign responsibility to perfunctory teaching and preprofessional curriculums that reduce liberal arts study to grade-grubbing vocationalism, or to the abhorrence of general ideas by specialist-scholars, or to the vacuousness of “performer-professors.” Teachers who tirelessly study the complexities of race, class, and gender and reject crude distinctions between gay and straight exempt the rigid categories of jock and nonjock from examination.

If the causes of lifeless undergraduate teaching are seen more realistically, then the reforms recommended by Bowen and Levin would make more sense. Particularly promising are the proposals that advocate new standards for measuring successful coaching and better integration of gifted athletes into academic life. Bowen and Levin are needlessly vague about the latter goal. One possibility might be to encourage athletes to function as off-season tutors of beginners in their sports and as coaches of teams in informal leagues. Cultural history might include occasional case studies of moments in the development of games, stadiums, performance criteria, etc. Many other possibilities for opening lines of communication are worth exploring.

But no reform program can be effective without an examination of athletic excellence that is more searching than current academic convention approves. Bowen and Levin don’t mention the matter—but it’s a fact that many teachers enroll in tennis camps, golf clinics, dressage classes, and the like, gaining familiarity with the world of sport—experience capable of strengthening resistance to cant. Even a mid-life tyro-athlete learns about application, dis- cipline, self-correction—about wit, say, as part of the mandatory equipment for a weekend club doubles tennis player—and about high exhilaration as the reward of amateur progress in any game. Even minuscule increments of progress offer intimations of the qualities that enter into the development, at merely middling levels, of athletic gifts—patience, devotion, imaginative invention, realistic self-criticism, teamwork, delicacy, courage, others.

Yet, although scores of academic voices hold forth in Reclaiming the Game, only rarely do they reach beyond stale comment on camaraderie and the pleasures of physical conditioning. They have little to say about what sports can teach about the difference between mediocrity and achievement, about how athletes of superior gifts can become inspiring models, and—more broadly—about the uses of excellence. Dimness about athletic self-expression can lead to self-deprivation as pitiable as that caused by unresponsiveness to music or history or the visual arts.

The larger goal should be to moderate the obsession with rank-ordering human activities. Establishing hierarchies—athletes above thinkers, thinkers above athletes—has a long history in the West, it’s true; moments have occurred when aspirations of mind were pitted against sports idolatry in absolute terms—us or them. “Spirit ver-sus sport—that is the essence of the conflict,” said the classicist Werner Jaeger summing up an ancient strug-gle between ideals—between Athens’s emerging rage for philosophy and old aristocratic Pindaric worship of Olympic victories as “revelation[s] of the victor’s divine arete, or wisdom.” (Or as Xenophanes said: “This wisdom of ours is better than the strength of men and horses…. There is no justice in preferring strength to wisdom.”)

But claims can be made for a different set of ideals—choice for all, openness, mutual appreciation, an end to exclusionary bifurcations, understanding of both philosophy and chariot-racing: they avoid absolutes. Bowen and Levin are brave and right to document hypocrisy and condemn it. If they and the academic professionals they interviewed showed a clearer grasp of our blurred latter-day ideals, and a richer sense of the meanings of the games they speak of reclaiming, this useful book might have had a chance of changing—for the better—the situation it deplores.

This Issue

May 12, 2005