The President’s Perspective: Good Sports
By Elaine Tuttle Hansen, president
Recruiting violations, rioting fans, abysmal graduation rates: The scandals associated with big-time college and professional sports seem far removed from the action at Alumni Gym, on Garcelon Field, or in Tarbell Pool. Yet athletics programs at highly selective private colleges and universities are also in the spotlight, and today’s Bates athletes play amidst the swirl of highly charged and sometimes overlapping discussions, both in our New England Small College Athletic Conference and within NCAA Division III.
These complex discussions share a theme: the need to improve the fit of athletics programs within our academic mission.
Two books The Game of Life (2001), by William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman, and the Ivy- and NESCAC-focused sequel, Reclaiming the Game (2003), by Bowen and Sarah A. Levin have fueled much of this debate. Both studies claim that athletics at the Ivies and many of the most selective liberal arts colleges has lost its “pure” status; that the divide between athletics and academics is growing; and that both the admissions advantage and the academic under-performance of recruited athletes is substantial and pernicious.
Not all the NESCAC presidents agree that these blanket claims unquestionably apply to their own institutions. However, as a group we are deeply committed to fixing problems, real and perceived, and to restoring confidence in the value, fit, and integrity of our athletic programs.
In response to the first book and preliminary findings from the second study, the NESCAC presidents in late 2001 agreed to bring athletic directors and deans of admissions together to forge policies that would reduce the influence of athletics in the admissions process. Just as the Ivy League presidents agreed to restrict the number of football recruits on each campus, the NESCAC schools set limits on the numbers of “recruited” athletes (even as the discussion of what exactly that term means on each campus continues). Our goal was to affirm NESCAC ideals: that students who play our sports should be representative of the student body and that “equitable competition,” not dynastic dominance by one school or another, should be the conference hallmark.
Outside NESCAC, Bates has a role in broader and no less important conversations within the NCAA. These discussions aim to reaffirm core Division III values, especially the notion that “a student-athlete’s athletics activities are conducted as an integral part of the student-athlete’s educational experience.” In January 2002, the NCAA Division III leadership appointed a subcommittee co-chaired by Middlebury President John McCardell and including Bates Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey to explore legislative reforms. Following almost two years of discussions, their proposals, scheduled for a recent vote at the January NCAA convention, include many corrective practices already observed in NESCAC, such as limits on the number of seasons a student can participate, restricted recruiting practices, and shortened playing and practice seasons.
Indeed, reform is in the winter air. Another reform initiative is based on a proposal entitled “College Sports and Educational Values: A Reform Agenda.” Jointly authored by college presidents, athletic directors, and Mellon Foundation officers, this report calls for multilateral de-escalation of the athletics arms race. And just beneath the surface of these and other discussions and initiatives lurks the specter of a Division III “sub-division” or the creation of a new organizational structure altogether.
To date, I observe that college presidents and other partisan advocates tend to believe that their own institutions remain committed to the highest ideals of college sports, while wondering if the same is true of their opponents (especially those who win a lot of games). That bias notwithstanding, I believe Bates is committed to an educationally sound and balanced athletic program, in both principle and practice. In analyzing one recent student cohort, we found that our varsity athletes did not fall prey to some of the trends deplored in Bowen’s studies. These athletes did not cluster in particular majors, and they were as or slightly more likely than non-athletes to do research with a faculty member, to present or publish a paper, and to do off-campus internships and volunteer work. (In this particular group they were also slightly less likely to study abroad or be active in an academic or political club.) Our club and intramural sports programs, moreover, provide popular and important opportunities for many others to experience the rewards of athletic activity at Bates.
As a parent of two young women who play sports, I see how athletics can be a positive, even transformational experience. Yet, as various college sports reform movements in America move to the brink of major action, many arguments still rely on very general, longstanding, and largely unexamined assumptions about how participation in sports builds character, teaches teamwork, develops leaders, relieves stress, and so forth. We need more research that asks how and under what circumstances these assumptions are borne out, so that we can document, model, and enhance best practices. We need to talk directly with athletes present students and alumni and their coaches about their perceptions and experiences before, during, and after the college years.
At Bates, we welcome opportunities to scrutinize and improve what we do. We are already developing strategies such as the faculty liaison program, discussed in this issue, to enhance the integration of athletics and academics. Given this willing and able culture at Bates, the College is well positioned to play a leadership role in articulating and demonstrating the connection between first-rate undergraduate educational institutions and robust athletic programs.
In Sports in the Lives of Children and Adolescents: Success on the Field and in Life (1998), Robert S. Griffin, while noting the dearth of conclusive research on the subject, does find evidence that participation in sports at the pre-college level can foster “the achiever culture” emphasizing creativity and productivity as opposed to “the consumer culture” based on watching, spending, and feeling good in the present moment. “For so many youngsters,” Griffin writes, “life is a matter of existing in a world where there is much to do and much to buy but where nothing really matters all that much, including themselves.”
An achiever culture fostered through sports, on the other hand, tells children that “marshalling their resources, testing their limits and then going beyond them, and contributing to others are the best vehicles to long-term satisfying experiences and a satisfying life.” These are precisely the virtues I witness among our Bates student-athletes. Indeed, these are the very habits we seek to foster in all our students, for they are at the very center of our institutional mission.