Princeton Should Cut Varsity Athletics

By Pete Kunze ’14

Princeton should cut varsity athletics. Yes, you read that right.  Before you dismiss this article in disgust, realize that I say this not out of anger or ignorance.  In my honest opinion, the benefits of varsity sports no longer outweigh the costs.

I did not get rejected from Princeton. My place here is secure and I feel no need to attack anyone. I am a fan of sports. I avidly follow football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and others. I do a weekly radio talk show about sports – Princeton sports in particular.  I was a high-school athlete (admittedly god-awful).  I am good friends with a number of athletes here, and am constantly astounded by their ability to handle the academic workload of Princeton, and play a sport at a world-class level.

I am not some jock-hating ascetic. I understand sports. I understand the countless hours put in. I believe that through sports we often learn life’s greatest lessons. But as much as I relish the thought of another March Madness appearance or hope for a long-awaited bonfire on Chancellor Green, I just cannot see how varsity sports make much sense at Princeton.

Let me be clear: I do not propose an athletic vacuum here at Princeton. Sports provide clear and real benefits to those who participate and the university at large.  However, most, if not all, of these benefits, can be provided for by club sports just as easily as varsity sports at a fraction of the costs.  Club sports compete against other schools, but not as a part of the NCAA. They do not travel nearly as much as varsity teams, must support most of their expenses through their own fundraising, and receive no assistance from the admissions committee in recruiting athletes.  By contrast, the university likely spends in the neighborhood of $20 million annually on its athletics. Additionally, it lowers admissions standards for athletes, permitting the athletic department to recruit the athletes it wants, as long as the aggregate test scores and GPAs of each incoming class are within one standard deviation of the student body mean.

To demonstrate that club sports can approximate most, if not all of the benefits of varsity sports, I want to examine some of these benefits and demonstrate that either that they are either exaggerated, or can be replicated.

Community

Defenders of varsity athletics at Princeton often point to “The Shot,” Doug Davis’s game-winning basket that sent the men’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, as an example of how sports have brought a sense of community to the campus. At that time, every student felt connected to the university through the moment and will likely never forget that experience. The football team’s recent comeback win over Harvard provided another moment like this. That said, “The Shot” and the recent win over Harvard bonded the community because of their rare and unique quality, and give an exaggerated picture of athletics impact on Princeton’s community spirit. If Princeton football defeated Harvard more frequently, then it would feel much more routine, thus losing its unifying power.  If the unordinary moments unite us, we cannot expect the same from them once they become ordinary.  Moments like “The Shot” are rare, and not representative of the experiences that Princeton sports typically provide .

Frankly, most victories and defeats of Princeton teams go unnoticed by the student body. Outside of men’s basketball, what does the average student know or care about the different sports? Attendance at sporting events is extremely low. The typical Princeton student does not block out 3 hours on a weekend to watch a sport simply because the team represents the university. Those who attend games often already have a preexisting relationship with those on the team – most are either family or friends of the athletes – and thus have formed a community that precedes the existence of varsity sports. Students seem to bond more over politically charged hummus or grade deflation than they do over Princeton sports.

If varsity athletics do not unite the Princeton community as a whole, then perhaps they strengthen the specific groups within it and thus make the community more cohesive. Participating in a sport certainly integrates one into a community very quickly. Athletes count their teammates as some of their best friends and often form life-long relationships out of their teams.

However, this relationship building occurs in many student groups on campus, and certainly appears in club sports. If this effect differs at all between varsity athletics and other student groups, then it’s likely for negative reasons. Athletic teams are likelier tighter than other organizations, because there is unspoken, but clear distinction between athletes and non-athletes. This most often occurs accidentally, as the schedules of the two groups makes most interaction near impossible. This unintended stratification, however, exacerbates the problem and reinforces prejudices and misunderstandings between athletes and non-athletes. This has caused an undeniable inferiority/superiority complex between the two groups, both socially and academically.

Alumni

Proponents of varsity athletics claim that they provide a lasting connection between the university and alumni. This connection not only serves to increase donations, but also provides Princeton with one of its most distinct features: its extremely proud and active alumni. It’s true that athletics has provided this connection to the alumni, but I think it’s doubtful that this will continue to play much of a factor. Alumni certainly attend and support the athletic teams in large numbers, but those who do are predominantly either older alumni or ex-athletes. Princeton once had rabid student support for its sports teams, largely as a consequence of their success. With Princeton football declining since the 1950s, our athletic glory has been sparse to say the least. Slowly but surely, the legions of alumni who watched Dick Kazmaier and Bill Bradley lead the Tigers to glory, will be replaced by those who have little memory or interest in Princeton sports.

As for increased donations, the evidence for this effect is mixed to say the least. In his book on college athletics, Beer and Circus, Murray Sperber examined the claim that successful college athletics increased alumni donations, and found that was little to no correlation between the two. In fact, he argues that athletic success likely diverts alumni donations away from the university to the specific sports teams.

Diversity

Athletic teams supposedly bring much-needed diversity to the student body. Having athletically gifted individuals dispersed throughout the student population supposedly improves the quality and depth of the Princeton education. However, I do not believe varsity athletes increase diversity in the meaningful sense of the word.

The benefits of diversity come when one is exposed to a perspective they never engaged before. Race, religion, and socioeconomic class are all classifications that provide radically different perspectives of the world, and many of us have not interacted with one or more of these before. Nearly everyone, however, has interacted with athletes before. I was an athlete throughout high school, and have been friends with athletes throughout my life. Certainly, the athletes here are substantially better than those I knew in high school, but I do not think the perspectives differ dramatically.  Furthermore, the elimination of varsity athletics would not exclude all athletically skilled students from Princeton. Many students here played sports in high school, and continue to do so, albeit on a club level.

Additionally, the pursuit of athletic diversity brings some real costs to the makeup of the student body. This section is the most uncomfortable part of this whole essay, but it must be said: the admission of varsity athletes brings down the academic caliber of the student population.  Of course, some of the brightest students I know here are athletes, but the aggregate picture does not change. The average athlete comes in with lower test scores and lower grades than the average Princeton student.

Again, I am not attacking athletes.  I am simply pointing that Princeton has to lower its admission standards in order to maintain varsity sports. Critics will, of course, retort that Princeton lowers admission standards for other groups, particularly legacies, and that athletes should not be singled out, the fact that Princeton alters its standards for a number of groups should not bar us from criticizing its methods toward one particular group. While it is true that Princeton lowers its standards for other groups, it is not nearly as systematic as its method for the athletic department. Recruited athletes receive a letter of “likely admission” in the fall, a privilege other applicants do not receive. Since coaches have substantial power in determining who will be admitted, athletic recruitment is in many ways independent from admissions for the rest of the student bodies.

This inequity of admissions saps the university of some of its intellectual vitality. The strength of Princeton comes not just from the professors or the curriculum, but from the awe-inspiring intelligence that surrounds us. The more intelligent the student body, the more intelligent all sorts discussions, from precepts to random dinner interactions, are. Any admissions inequality removed will benefit the Princeton community.

Furthermore, the different admissions standards create a divide between athletes and non-athletes.  As much as students protest that think nothing of another’s status as an athlete, the fact is that nearly every non-athlete has sized up a class or precept based on the number of athletes in it. On the other side, I am sure every athlete has felt academic condescension at some point in their Princeton career, both from professors and students. Again, this is extremely unfortunate, but it’s the reality of the situation here and protestations to the contrary cannot alter it.

Conclusion

As attached as I am to sports, I simply cannot continue to advocate for its place in the college setting. I believe that Princeton would benefit by cutting varsity athletics, and hope to see some movement in that direction as college sports as a whole undergo a transformation. All things considered, Princeton will likely not drop sports for a long time to come, and maybe never will. These concerns aside, I stand by my belief that Princeton should end varsity athletics and separate itself from the ultimately detrimental world of college sports.

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One thought on “Princeton Should Cut Varsity Athletics

  • December 2, 2012 at 11:35 pm
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    While I respect the right you have to your opinion, I feel that as a varsity athlete I cannot let this opportunity pass without speaking up. This article asserts that the same benefits gained playing a varsity sport can be gained just the same through playing a club sport, but I can say without a doubt that this is not in the slightest bit true. While you may have pinpointed the superficial, surface level benefits that come with playing a sport, this article failed to touch on the most profound skill sets that stand to be gained through participation in varsity athletics.

    Club sports simply do not demand the same amount of time, effort, or devotion asked of varsity athletes. A non-athlete could never begin to understand the demand expected of varsity athletes. Imagine being asked to do the same amount of work you do everyday, but with five hours less to do it. Note that this does not include the extra work expected to be put in outside of practice time. Five hours a day, every day of the year spent here at Princeton. Imagine trying to do that same work after being more physically exhausted than you’d ever think your body could be, and imagine being expected to produce the same quality of work having been mentally exhausted to the point of questioning your decision to attend this University. It takes a special person to accomplish all that Princeton demands of its students; now imagine trying to do it all with one hand tied behind your back. Club sports simply do not impose these same rigors, and therefore do not breed the skills associated with a vigorous mentally and physically demanding schedule; club sports does not breed character. Without these stresses and demands, the strength of the individual can never be taught. An intense work ethic, an understanding that you will find a way to succeed come hell or high water comes through the participation in varsity athletics. Character is built through demand, and built in no place more so than our athletic department.

    This same level of commitment fosters an unparalleled sense of community that simply cannot be replicated by any other means. The level of commitment, the amount of time that each an every varsity athlete gives to his or her team is absolutely incredible. A group of individuals that dedicated to success and that dedicated to one another becomes family. Without the time given to one another, without the shared suffering, and most importantly, without the shared glory, a family will not be created. Spending two hours a day with one another may foster superficial friendships, but it will not create the blood bond formed within a varsity team. The benefits provided by a sense of community are lost without varsity sports.

    More important than either of these things, however, is the individual strength gained through participation in a varsity sport. The mental and physical strength asked of a varsity athlete is unlike any demand asked of any student. It cannot be imagined unless experienced. They may think they understand, may think that they “get it,” but they will never come close. Pushing yourself physically and mentally past your body’s perceived limit, day in and day out, breeds a toughness in athletes that cannot be matched. Knowing you’ll be awake at 5:45 the next morning, conditioning, lifting, willingly breaking your body down to make it better (and finding a way to love every minutes of it) breeds a toughness that cannot be replicated elsewhere. It breeds exceptionally strong individuals that bring a new understanding and appreciation of hard work to this community that makes us all better. This is the never-before-seen perspective. This is what matters. This is the diversity that club sports cannot give the University. Varsity athletics provide a benefit that most will never have a means to attain: an absolutely unwavering mental and physical strength, bred only through athletics.

    While club sports serve a wonderful, much-needed purpose on our campus, they simply do not have the capacity to provide the same benefits as do varsity athletics. It would be an absolute detriment to this University to let such an outstanding athletic department fall victim to the same academe that makes this place so great. Invest in our greatest assets; invest in “Education through Athletics.”

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