Academia and Athletics

Talent scholarships are one of the defining aspects of the U.S. college experience. We see it time and time again in Hollywood films: Troye, Kelsi and Ryan are in the running for a Juilliard scholarship in High School Musical 3, and Santana in Glee is given a full scholarship for cheerleading at the University of Louisville. The prospect of a full scholarship provides an opportunity for many families who cannot afford the steep prices of college education. Hard work and devotion to a sport in the last years of high school lead to recruitment allows varsity athletes to forgo paying tuition in reward for representing their universities at national competitions.

University athletics are an integral part of college culture, and often a large generator of funds. Indeed, tension often emerges between academia and athletics. At the University of Washington, a Physics professor won a national award for his research, while football coach Tyrone Willingham’s team only won 2 conferences. However, Willingham received much more attention than the physics professor. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer cites Doug Glant, former University of Washington Athletics Booster, who said “You’d like to think a school should be known for its physics department or whatever, but the fact of the matter is, the most public thing is your football team”, adding, “where athletics have a significant impact is just the kind of general mood people are in about the University and how they feel about it.”

However, a group of the leading schools of the country, the Ivy League, do not follow the traditional system, but they do allot a significant portion of incoming student spots to future athletes. For example, if Columbia had a class of size 1,200, 240 spots would be for recruited athletes, excluding walk-ons. While recruitment can help an athletically-able student to gain admission to the school, they are not exempt from school fees. As a result they can choose to leave the team at any moment. Princeton is one of these schools; and on Princeton’s campus it is not unheard of for an athlete to be recruited for their talent, but, once on campus, decide to leave the team.

Jennie Shulkin from the Huffington Post was one of these students. After walking onto the squash team at the University of Pennsylvania, she felt that the cons of the sport outweighed the pros. She is not the only one, and reports that she knows roughly around as many athletes as ex-athletes, an alarming ratio that should be a cause of concern at Ivy League schools, but is not causing much of a stir. Amongst her reasons for dropping squash, Shulkin lists time commitment. She spent 2.5 hours a day practicing for squash, and had to forfeit her weekends for 5 months each year for traveling. She also cited an interesting point: that there was little appreciation for athletes in the Ivy League.

Quitting because of the lack of recognition does not seem particularly compelling; in a competitive place like the Ivy League, you are not put on a pedestal for every accomplishment. Surely, there are other factors at play: the academic pressures of top-tier universities, or the desire to try out different activities. In an attempt to learn more, I conducted an interview with an ex-athlete from Princeton, whose identity will remain anonymous in this article. The interview pertains to her experience on her athletic team, and how she thinks having a scholarship would have affected her decision to leave:

“I decided to leave the team not because of the issue of time or a lack of passion for the sport. Unfortunately, I felt that I needed to leave the team because I was put into a situation in which I was disrespected and was experiencing very unhealthy levels of stress and emotional trauma on a daily basis. It is unfortunate that was the reason why I ended up leaving the team because I still loved my sport and I loved the people on the team. However, it is very sad to see that at a school like Princeton University, with its academic prestige and Division 1 athletic program, that there is the reality of a very irresponsible head coach and unprofessionalism in the program.

I don’t think that if I had a scholarship it would have changed my willingness to compete and loyalty to the team. I actually feel that if there were scholarships it would have benefitted me more because I would have actually been respected and actually treated like a human versus an insignificant other.

I feel that Ivy league athletics are belittled because of the lack of professionalism that there is at present. If we were at a serious Division 1 athletic program, I would not have had the same mistreatment by a coach or physical trainer. That kind of unprofessionalism would not be allowed because the athletic performance would be too high.

The process of quitting the team was fairly easy. All I had to do was send an email. It’s actually really funny because the University first misspelled the name of my high school in my player bio and after I repeatedly asked for it to be changed, I got no response. But to leave the team was fairly easy. Also, the coach made it seem like she was doing me a favor by letting me be on the team. So I had no incentive to stay on because the coach made it seem like it was her team and her show and that I should be the lucky one to be on the team.”

The lack of a scholarship can thus have a profound affect on student-coach relationships, and could ultimately cost the Ivy League some of their top athletes. Moreover, if these sorts of experiences by students are vocalized, the Ivy League could lose some of its prestige by driving away potential recruits to schools with comparable academic standards but with a scholarship system in place.