NEW YORK AND BOSTON — Everyone is aware of the recurring scandals that plague big-time sports, but few are aware of an ever-widening "academic-athletic divide" even at many of the country's leading colleges and universities.
Intense athletic competition and vigorous recruitment of athletes among these schools have led to large numbers of recruited athletes who are not focused on academics and are often socially isolated from their peers.
Abandoning intercollegiate athletics, however, is not the answer. An effort must be made to bring college sports back into balance with educational values so that the benefits of athletics — and of the college experience — can be fully realized.
Our study of 33 selective colleges and universities — documented in our book "Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values" — found a growing divide between academics and athletics at schools such as Amherst and Columbia, which offer no athletic scholarships and whose sports programs are clearly not in the entertainment business. We found evidence that recruited athletes at these selective schools enjoy a substantial admissions advantage over all other students. In the Ivy League, for example, male and female recruited athletes were four to five times as likely to be admitted as applicants with the same SAT scores.
Consequently, recruits who are admitted have weaker academic credentials, on average, than other students. This would lead us to expect them to earn lower grades than their classmates, and they do. In fact, 4 out of 5 of the men recruited to play football, basketball and ice hockey in the Ivies, and nearly 3 out of 4 of such students in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, were ranked in the bottom third of their class.
Especially disturbing is that recruited athletes earn markedly lower grades than they would be expected to earn based on their SAT scores and high school records. This underperformance is substantial and evident even when the recruited athletes are not participating in their sports.
Thus, we believe that it is a student's lack of motivation and interest that is primarily responsible for academic underperformance, not merely the time spent conditioning, practicing and competing. This troubling finding suggests that scarce admission places go to students who lack the commitment to engage in the rich educational opportunities that these institutions offer.
The academic-athletic divide has widened markedly over the past few decades and has spread from Division I-A programs to liberal-arts colleges, and from high-profile men's sports to lower-profile men's sports, and to women's sports. The forces widening the divide are deep-seated, and if left alone, they continue to drive a wedge between academics and athletics at leading colleges and universities.
If not reversed, this trend will undermine the enduring values of intercollegiate sports on campuses where athletics is meant to be an integral part of the educational program. As Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale, put it: "Athletics teaches lessons valuable to the individual by stretching the human spirit in ways that nothing else can."
We, too, believe that a well-conceived athletic program offers tremendous benefits. But realizing these benefits does not require the kinds of "professionalized" athletic programs that have evolved over the past three or four decades. In fact, one consequence of the increased reliance on recruited athletes is diminishing opportunity for "regular students" to play college sports. The most compelling arguments for college sports are undercut by fielding teams that are uninvolved in much of campus life and are, in significant ways, at odds with the primary educational missions of these institutions.
For all these reasons, it is time to "reclaim the game" — to get back to thinking of "sports for the students," rather than of "students for the sports," as one faculty member told us.
Tweaking the system won't accomplish much because the pieces of this complex puzzle are too closely connected for minor adjustments to have real effect. (For example, the emphasis on recruiting is linked to policies followed by competitors and to assumptions about success at the national level. All of these are tied tightly to the willingness or unwillingness to accept academic underperformance by recruited athletes.)
So, to bring college athletics into balance with educational values, it is necessary to develop a broad framework for reform, based on core principles, such as:
Making athletes truly representative of their student bodies (with academic outcomes similar to those achieved by other students).
Assuring that opportunities to participate in intercollegiate athletics are widely available to both men and women and not limited to students recruited to play sports.
Integrating athletes into campus life so they participate in a wide range of activities rather than occupying a "space of their own."
Providing extensive opportunities for vigorous competition between like-minded institutions structured to avoid a preoccupation with national rankings and national championships.
Athletics can make important contributions to the overall educational experience of students and to the sense of "community" on campus. Reform should strengthen, not weaken, these contributions by grounding college sports in educational missions. It is time to confront today's realities and reclaim the game.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where Sarah A. Levin is a research associate. Their new book is "Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values."