March 7, 2008

Playing fair with admissions

[img id="80430" align="alignleft"] In his Tuesday column (“More Than a Game,” 3/4/08), Matt Barnum takes issue with the process that U of C athletic coaches follow when recruiting student-athletes. Specifically, Barnum does not believe that coaches should be allowed to lobby the admissions office on behalf of prospective students who they believe would be a good fit for the school and their teams.

Having gone through the recruiting and admissions process myself four years ago, I am convinced that Barnum is mistaken. I was recruited as a cross-country and track athlete by several schools at both the D-I and D-III levels, and the obstacles that U of C head coach Chris Hall faced in recruiting me were evident throughout the process. Hall emphasized at every stage that his hands were tied and that there was nothing he could do to ensure that I would be admitted here.

By contrast, when I was recruited by a top Ivy League school, the athletic department paid for my flights to and from the school and guaranteed me admission, even though I had missed the application deadline by several weeks. Furthermore, when I informed that school’s coaches that the U of C had offered me a better financial-aid package, they promptly increased their package by about 25 percent.

That’s what our coaches and teams are up against. Top high-school athletes who prioritize athletics can get into a D-I school and get their education fully paid for, and those who prioritize academics can get into schools that are ranked higher than the U of C and be assured admission because of their athletic talent. Whereas coaches at many peer schools are able to guarantee their recruits admission provided they meet certain baseline requirements, U of C coaches can merely advocate on their recruits’ behalf.

Barnum argues that athletic recruiting and admissions should be kept completely separate. But the recruiting process, while it certainly has its excesses at places other than the U of C, is at the core of collegiate athletics. If the U of C is to have varsity sports teams at all, our coaches must be allowed at least a minimal say in the admissions process; they simply cannot do their job of competitively recruiting otherwise.

Barnum writes that even if the U of C were to prevent its coaches from advocating for their recruits, “admissions officers would still be free to take into account participation in high school sports.” But universities are filled with former athletes; the point isn’t what an athlete did in high school, it’s whether he will become a part of a team in college. Most collegiate varsity athletes continue to participate in their sport because they were taken under the wing of a coaching staff and team at the school they choose to attend.

Coaches spend hundreds of hours researching potential recruits and speaking with their coaches, their families, and the recruits themselves. They get to know the prospective students they target far better than the admissions office does, and they quickly learn whether the school is an appropriate fit for the student. U of C coaches in particular are aware that this is a one-of-a-kind university and a tough sell for some. Accordingly, they don’t waste time pursuing athletes who can’t cut it in the classroom.

Our coaches are restricted less by NCAA rules than by the U of C’s educational culture, which understandably insists on prioritizing academics above all else. The belief that students go to college to become more educated human beings and citizens lies at the heart of the U of C’s identity and is its primary advantage over peer schools.

But it would be a profound mistake to identify “education” with book learning and classroom work alone. It’s a long-established fact that physical health and exercise are highly beneficial to mental health and the learning process, and our understanding of what it means to be a balanced, well rounded individual includes the idea of athletics, competitive or not. Mens sana in corpore sano.

When an admissions office takes a coach’s recruiting recommendations into account as one factor in their decision process, the point is not to inordinately reward students for their high school athletic accomplishments. Rather, it is to ensure the continued vitality of a university’s athletic teams. These teams are strong communities held together by tradition, daily interaction between teammates, and disciplined work on common tasks. They strengthen individual student-athletes through the mentorship of coaches and older team members, the opportunity they provide for concrete accomplishments, and the close friendships that form within them.

The teams are an antidote to the solitary atomism that all too often characterizes the life of a college student on a big campus in a big city. Some students build similar communities through the housing program or student organizations. But for me and for many others, my college education and experience was profoundly impacted by my four years as a varsity athlete. Our teams are a critical part of student life, and coaches should have the recruiting tools they need to ensure that they remain so.

Ryan McCarl is an M.A. student of international relations. His column appears on alternate Fridays.