More than a game

By Matt Barnum

[img id=”80406″ align=”alignleft”] Going to last Saturday’s men’s basketball game made me feel like a normal college student.

The arena—OK, gym—was packed. The crowd was into it. And our Maroons won, earning a league title and a berth in the NCAA D-III tournament. It was a genuinely exciting time, and it revealed an important truth: Although athletics are not generally considered a primary part of the U of C, they can still play a valuable role in many of our lives.

Athletic success, however, must be reconciled with the academic ideals of the University. In this respect, there is room for improvement. A recent Maroon article described a disturbing practice involving the U of C admissions and athletic departments. The story (“Coaches Fit Pieces of Recruiting Puzzle,” 1/21/08) depicted the struggle that coaches face when recruiting athletes. In the piece, U of C athletic director Tom Weitengartner was quoted as saying,

“Our coaches give the admissions office lists of students they are interested in, and we try to advocate for them.”

It should first be said that there’s no evidence that athletes are less intelligent than the average student: The athletics department website reports that male and female varsity athletes have GPAs just a tenth of a point lower than their non-athlete counterparts. The small deficit can be explained away by the fact that athletes have to spend so much time on sports.

Yet it’s still inappropriate for coaches to advocate for their recruits. Admitted athletes are either not as qualified as the rest of the class, or they are; help given by coaches is unnecessary. It’s unclear how much sway coaches have over admissions officers, but any influence, or even the appearance of influence, is inappropriate at a top university like ours. Admissions is a zero-sum game—for every applicant a coach advocates for, he is effectively advocating against another one.

The main argument in support of admissions preferences for athletes is the notion that admissions officers aren’t just looking for the best students; they’re looking to create a diverse community. This means, the argument goes, bringing in some science nerds, some English majors, some international students, some ethnic minorities, and some athletes. Setting aside the merit of this concept, stopping preferences for recruited athletes won’t necessarily stop preferences for athletes. Admissions officers would still be free to take into account participation in high school sports.

So what would happen if coaches were not allowed to submit lists or lobby the admissions office? Would sports at the U of C cease to exist? Of course not—our teams just might not be as good. Coaches might have to sacrifice athletic talent for academic achievement. Or they might have to recruit even more players to get enough admitted to fill the slots. Coaches might have to accept more walk-ons. This won’t be an easy process—recruiting is already hard enough—but it is a necessary one to ensure that the U of C keeps its academic integrity.

It’s easy to say that all things being equal, we should take an athlete over a non-athlete. But then, all things being equal, I’d take an attractive person over an unattractive one. The “all things being equal” trap is a fallacy. All things are never equal. Policies like that inevitably lead to biased, overly subjective admissions.

U of C athletics should not be forgotten. I’ve spent many a Friday night at a basketball game, and I think more people should come out and support our teams. But in the end, our institution is not about athletics. It’s about academics—and we would do well not to forget that.

Matt Barnum, a Maroon Viewpoints Editor, is a second-year in the College majoring in psychology. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.