Earning Their Stripes: Athletes and Academics at Princeton

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February 28th, 2015. Senior Night for the fourteenth-ranked Princeton women’s basketball team. The Tigers were aiming to set a new single-season wins mark versus the Brown Bears just one night after head coach Courtney Banghart set a program record for coaching wins. Going for their 27th straight victory, the Tigers started their four seniors who were honored before the game. Thanks to 20 points from junior Michelle Miller and 15 points from senior co-captain Blake Dietrick, Princeton survived Jordin Alexander’s 25 points to take out Brown, 79-67. After notching their 27th straight win, the Tigers would close out the regular season with three straight road wins and one tournament win before losing to one-seeded Maryland.

The number of people in attendance on Senior Night? 2,097. Jadwin Gymnasium seats 6,854.

In total, 12,446 fans came to watch the Lady Tigers at home this season, for an average of just over 1,131 per game. That number is well below the average attendance in women’s college basketball of 1,526. It was also only slightly above Princeton’s average home attendance last season at 1,008. This slight increase came in spite of multiple ESPN headlines covering their pursuit of perfection, tweets between Amanda Berntsen and also-perfect Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison, and what many analysts considered a criminally low seeding in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Add President Obama’s attendance at the tournament game versus Green Bay (and his 18 appearances on camera during ESPN2’s televised broadcast) and Coach Banghart’s ranking of 43rd in Fortune Magazine’s annual Top 50 Greatest World Leaders list and Naismith Coach of the Year award, and you have to ask yourself: what gives?

While the debate over compensation for student-athletes rages on, the Ivy League stands alone among Division I schools for not giving its recruits scholarships of any sort. Yet, since Ivy League play officially began in the 1956-1957 academic year, the League has had 46 NCAA team championships and 197 NCAA individual/event championships through the 2013-2014 season. In the last four years, there have been six Ivy team and 34 individual/event champions.

And the success is not limited to athletes’ time on campus. Forty-nine Ivy League athletes participated in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, seventeen of whom came from Princeton, and earned fifteen gold , four silver, and six bronze medals. At the Sochi Winter Games of 2014, 27 Ivy athletes competed, winning five gold, five silver, and two bronze medals. Over the last four years, fifteen Ivy League athletes have played in the NFL, twelve in the MLB, two in the NBA, and seventeen in the NHL.

At this point, all that has been said amounts to interesting but insubstantial pieces of trivia. Despite success from across the Ivy League schools, it is by no means heralded. Something is wrong when an undefeated and nationally ranked basketball team not only fails to fill the stands in its home finale but also only marginally increases its per-game attendance compared to the previous year. A similar observation can be made when teams that produce national champions and Olympians suffer from the same lack of interest. But there is an underlying question to all of this: is the success of sports teams good for Ivy League schools? Turning to the Tigers, should Princeton care about is athletic record and thus increase its recruiting? Or are the drawbacks to recruiting too great, regardless of the teams’ success?

Let’s start with whether or not Ivy League schools should have good sports teams. One incentive for a strong sports program, both at the collegiate and professional levels, is monetary. Universities and professional franchises invest in talent in order to draw more fans to the stadium on game day. On one level, however, it appears that the issue of funds from sports means hardly anything for Ivy League institutions with huge endowments, especially Princeton. Princeton’s total operating budget for the 2013-2014 financial year came in at just more than $1.58 billion. Only $24.9 million, or 2% of this money, is used to fund athletics. As far as income is preserved, athletics make up a portion of what Princeton describes as “auxiliary activities and service income,” which account for $114 million, or 7% of its Princeton’s annual income. Sports are therefore hardly vital to Princeton’s finances. If Princeton were to seek to maximize profit, investment in men’s football and men’s basketball, the two sports with the greatest attendance are football and men’s basketball, would be the wisest course of action. Clearly, however, Princeton does not invest in only these two sports.

However, the issue of revenue is not so black-and-white. Princeton’s endowment has been built up thanks in a large part to alumni donations. Focusing on only two revenue-raising sports limits donations from alumni in other sports because of a rejection of commitment to those programs. True, perhaps after some initial reductions in donations by other alumni, the alumni from football and basketball could pick up the slack, but that would be looking well into the future. Even then, it is unrealistic to assume that alumni from two varsity teams would cover all necessary athletic donations, especially given the small size of the men’s basketball team when compared to less profitable sports such as track and swimming. There is clearly a price to be paid for a total lack of commitment and interest.

Interest is at the heart of this debate. Successful teams rally support for themselves from the campus. Outside of alumni donations, this adds some intangible benefits to the university community, such as the oft-quoted “school spirit.” On one hand, taking the attendance numbers from the women’s basketball season as an example, sports at Princeton hardly appear to be a major source of interest among students, especially as local townspeople make up the bulk of fans. However, the effects of this remarkable season will only manifest themselves in a year or two down the road. With only one senior in this past team’s starting lineup, we should expect the Tigers to be just as good as ever (though undefeated is still a lot to ask). An attendance boost at home games is certainly warranted. Two years down the line, continued success from the Princeton program should help the recruiting side and keep Princeton at or near the top of the Ivy League. This is also fostered by successive tournament appearances and wins. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the team should remain successful over the next several years. The team plays well, good players continue to come, and campus support steadily increases.

There are other intangible benefits to having strong athletic programs, especially those that the NCAA likes to trumpet. Student-athletes surely learn valuable life-lessons including time-management, teamwork, dedication, and perseverance. But there is one more thorny issue here: recruiting.

Everyone has heard the line that Harvard, if it wanted to, could fill a freshman class with students who got perfect scores on the SAT. It does not do so because it values other aspects of applicants. Being academically brilliant is great, but being academically brilliant and a phenomenal musician is even better. Dedication to musical performance at an elite level is valued because it can enhance the campus community through performance, discussion, and entertainment.

The same applies to athletics. An individual’s commitment and elite performance in activities ranging from arts to journalism to sports is rightly valued by college admissions officers. On paper, it demonstrates that the student is more than just his or her grades and academic abilities. In reality, such commitment performance enhances the student body on both an individual and communal level.

Moreover, recruiting also benefits Princeton and other Ivy League institutions because of what I will refer to as the “true student-athlete.” As a university with a preeminent academic reputation, Princeton has some leverage in its recruiting even if it cannot offer scholarships. Oftentimes we attract and retain world-class talent because a Princeton education is a rare commodity. This is especially the case in sports lacking popular professional leagues, like fencing, field hockey, water polo, and others; the absence of a professional level prevents athletes from dropping out of college to pursue athletic careers, making academics even more important in the life and career of the athlete. The “true student-athlete” is a person who by all means can handle the academic rigor of Princeton but also wants to continue to play a sport at a high level. He or she can be dominant in a sport or just above average athletically but not guaranteed a prominent role in top-flight athletic programs at other schools. Princeton’s success in bringing such talented athletes to campus hinges upon both the student’s academic capabilities and the quality of the university’s athletic programs. And from this, the University derives the benefits of good sports teams as mentioned above.

One may object, “Recruiting’s drawbacks are too big to be ignored. Looking for athletes hurts the academic reputation of the university as a whole. The Ivy League should go beyond not offering scholarships and just not recruit altogether.” My response is fourfold.

Firstly, that athletes damage the total academic reputation of a university is both true and false. Student-athletes have schedules that would be undesirable to many Princeton students. Between morning exercises, afternoon practices, and road games and tournaments both on the weekends and during the week, there is little room for error in the life of an athlete. Naturally, time spent training for a sport cannot be spent studying or writing papers. So yes, it is expected that the median athlete’s grades are not as high as the median non-athlete. But I would argue that the typical athlete’s academic success is still admirable. As hard as Princeton is, athletes undergo the same stress and then some thanks to what can often amount to a second job.

Secondly, athletes must still meet rigorous academic requirements in order to be eligible for participation in intercollegiate sports. Rather than cite a Princeton example, I turn to the case of Jerian Grant and Notre Dame. Grant, as anyone watching the ACC Tournament or March Madness knows, is the best player on the Fighting Irish. A senior point guard with good range and a great knack for the game, Grant was forced to miss half of the 2013-2014 season due to an undisclosed academic infraction. This happened earlier with players on Notre Dame’s football team, including starting quarterback Everett Golson. As long as the academic thresholds are strictly enforced, as they were at Notre Dame, athletes cannot detract from the intellectual life of a university by completely shirking their academic responsibilities.

Thirdly, as mentioned above with the true student-athlete, some of our athletes are incredibly smart and would qualify to attend Princeton solely due to their academic achievements.  While this is not necessarily a rule, it speaks to Princeton’s current recruiting practice that athletes who quit their teams can generally still handle the difficulties of college life as well as their peers.

Fourthly, Princeton never has been and likely never a feeder to professional sports leagues or a home for so-called “one-and-done” players who attend college for a single academic year before declaring for a draft and entering a professional league as a highly desired prospect. One-and-done players have been a staple of college basketball since the NBA mandated at least one year out of high school before declaring into the NBA draft in 2006. Since Princeton is by no means an important source of recruitment for major professional sports leagues, it must require its athletes to focus on their academics; our best athletes nearly always remain at Princeton for the full four years; sports are rarely the ultimate careers for our varsity players.

I will conclude with one final objection. This past March the National Review published an article detailing how Harvard has become the “Kentucky on the Charles.” Taking advantage of its endowment, its reputation, and joint Ivy League decisions made in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Crimson has been able to build something of a basketball and football dynasty within the Ivy League. In short, Harvard has the ability to absorb the academic drawbacks of a very good recruit as well as the money to offer the greatest financial aid. Princeton could very well follow this path; our reputation is no worse than Harvard’s, and our per-student endowment is significantly higher. Would adopting the Crimson’s approach to athletics benefit our University?

Here I would argue no. As much as I would love to see our football and basketball teams compete with and defeat Harvard and become very successful within the Ivy League, trying to balance great athletes but subpar students with solid athletes but great students detracts from the academic purpose of the University. If our mysterious admissions calculus depends on a convoluted formula that somehow weights both SAT scores and points per game, I think we will have strayed too far. I want the admissions officers to continue to appreciate athletic involvement and athletic talent, but not when it runs contrary to the mission of higher education. I like to think being in the nation’s service means more than racking up assists for your team or scoring touchdown after touchdown.

Princeton ought to invest in its athletics and keep recruiting. The benefits of solid sports, occurring tangibly through alumni donations and intangibly through school spirit and other community-enhancing results, outweigh the academic costs. However, the recruiting model should not emulate Harvard’s recent strategy due to the perversion of the mission of higher education. In the end, maintaining our world-famous academic integrity and intellectual standards should be the University’s paramount mission. Meanwhile, what can Princeton students who are not athletes do? I would suggest checking out some of our high caliber teams, especially the rarely discussed but nationally ranked teams. But no, you do not have to watch the women’s basketball team just because President Obama was there.

John Balletta is a junior from Mahwah, New Jersey majoring in the Classics Department. He can be reached at balletta@princeton.edu

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