Liberal arts schools take closer look at influence of athletics

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2002

BOSTON -- At Amherst, the hockey coach also runs the golf team. Bowdoin doesn't charge admission for the football games, because there aren't any gates at the stadium. At Williams, the marching band doesn't really march at the games.

This isn't Miami and Nebraska playing for the national championship and all the riches that go along with it. But in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, a collection of 11 liberal arts schools from upstate New York to Maine, there is a growing concern about the way athletes are fitting in on campus.

''You don't have -- thank heavens -- the same kinds of behavioral issues at these colleges that you do at places where money drives these programs,'' said William Bowen, co-author of a book on the subject. ''But this may be the place where there's the best opportunity to do something.''

In ''The Game of Life,'' Bowen and James L. Shulman showed that small schools are increasingly -- and perhaps unintentionally -- compromising their principles for the sake of sports.

Surprised by the findings, the NESCAC asked the authors to expand their research. That report showed that athletics were given a disproportionate weight in the admissions process, and that athletes do not perform as well academically as the rest of the student body, or even as well as would be expected.

''Even in institutions that serve in most ways as a kind of a model with respect to these matters, there's a real, legitimate concern as to whether or not we've lost a certain balance with respect to the place of athletics within our institutions,'' said William Adams, Colby College president and conference chairman.

''We need to make sure athletics has the right weight in terms of admissions and in terms of the athlete's academic trajectory.''

Adams and the conference's other presidents decided last month to re-examine how athletes get into college and how they perform once there. Some of the schools already have cut the number of ''recruited athletes'' -- those for whom athletic skills tip the admission scales -- by 10-20 percent in hopes of rolling back a growing academic divide between players and other students.

''A key question for any selective college is how do you ration the small number of valuable places in the class,'' said Bowen, a former Princeton president and Ohio Conference tennis champion. ''It's an opportunity cost: The cost of admitting Jones, who is a fine athlete, is not admitting Smith, who may be an excellent mathematician.''

At Amherst, there were 94 athletic admissions out of about 425 students in the class of 2003. That was cut to 75 for 2004 and 2005, and it will be 66 for those now being admitted to the class of 2006.

''We're one of the smallest schools in the conference. When you start to say 94 of those kids are there because of athletics, that's too many,'' Dean of Admissions Tom Parker said. ''There are so many things we want to excel in.''

Athletic conferences can help foster rivalries, simplify scheduling and tap the economic potential of sports through television contracts and bowl alliances. But by grouping like-minded institutions, a conference can also enable schools to be competitive without sinking to the lowest academic denominator or into financial ruin.

For NESCAC, which claims its goal is to keep ''a proper perspective on the role of sport in higher education,'' that means no athletic scholarships, recruiting visits or organized practice in the off-season. Other changes are being studied to bring up the grades of the league's athletes.

''By making clear our values and taking a certain kind of position with respect to athletics and the escalating pressures in intercollegiate athletics, I think NESCAC can do something important here,'' Adams said.

Other schools are considering changes.

Carleton College, which went 0-10 in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference this year, has suggested forming a league of selective liberal arts schools. Rival Macalester decided to pull its football team from the conference rather than make the changes necessary to be competitive. In Pennsylvania, academically elite Swarthmore dropped football after 122 years.

The NESCAC schools stress that they are not trying to de-emphasize athletics, even if sports do carry less weight in admissions. After all, at a small liberal arts college, as much as half the student body can participate in intercollegiate athletics; at a 40,000-student Big Ten school, it's a few percent.

No one suggests that, if nothing is done, the NESCAC or Ivy League will soon be graduating illiterates or recruiting felons who run the 40 in 4.3 seconds. But even at these schools, signs of more subtle problems are seen in dormitories or academic majors dominated by athletes.

''The growing divide between the athletes and other students will continue to spread unless something happens,'' Bowen said.

At Connecticut College, a NESCAC member that doesn't have a football team, junior Nate Avorn didn't see a problem with an academic-athletic divide.

''I've never felt that the athletes in my school are any less adept than the rest of the student body. They seem to be student-athletes in the truest sense of the word,'' Avorn said. ''It's another way of being good at what you do.''

Bates athletic director Suzanne Coffey said a higher percentage of the school's athletes graduate than the student body as a whole; their grades are lower, within one-half letter grade of the rest of the campus. Bates does not plan any changes.

Graduates of NESCAC schools are scattered throughout professional sports -- as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, the chief operating officer of the Philadelphia Flyers and the coach of the New England Patriots. Precious few see the field as players.

''These aren't exactly athletic powerhouses,'' said Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach and perhaps the most well-known Wesleyan graduate in sports. ''That's probably because of people like me.''

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