Did you hear? Williams is really good at sports. The Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Athletics was formed at the behest of President Morton Schapiro to explore the status of athletics at the college. A part summary, part discussion of their report follows.

Varsity athletics have a profound impact on Williams College — even moreso than at Division I colleges, because there only 5% of the student body is composed of varsity athletes, and here 30% of students are varsity athletes. Over half of Williams students say that their status as an athlete or a non-athlete defines them at Williams, and 70% of students believe that athletics are significant or dominant in organizing social life — a feeling that is much more pronounced among students that are not varsity athletes. Only 30% of students feel that varsity athletics enhances the educational mission of the College.

Consider the following: Applicants to Williams are given an academic rating between 1 and 9.

Almost all students with academic rankings of 1 are accepted; about 65% of students with academic ratings of 2 are accepted, with extra-curricular activities often being the deciding factor among academic 2s. … The College never accepts applicants with an academic ranking of 8 or 9, and does not want too many 6s and 7s.In ’90 and ’91, the average academic ratings for tipped athletes were in the 5.7-5.8 range. For ’92 through ’98, they hovered around 5.5. For ’99-’00, they averaged about 5.0.

So varsity athletes tend to be much weaker students when they apply, and they get in anyway. (Coaches have 66 “tips” plus 32 “protects,” which are like tips, except that they are reserved for students with an academic rating of 3.)

Varsity athletes are also more likely to get into trouble:

Athletic admits were about twice as likely as the student body as a whole to receive “discuss/warnings,” and were more likely than the student body to be found culpable of multiple offenses, and receive probation, suspension, or expulsion. Athletic admits were three times as likely to be found to commit honor code violations than the student body as a whole.

Athletes are supposed to represent Williams College when they travel; it is sad that they do not uphold something as crucial to Williams as the honor code when they are at home.

And they tend to choose a much less academically rigorous schedule:

We find that the proportion of varsity athletes in all courses in ’99-’00 was 28.4%; the proportion of varsity athletes in hard courses was 23.4%; the proportion of varsity athletes in the easiest courses was 37.2%.Varsity athletes who are not tipped are 22% more likely than other students to take easy courses, but tipped athletes are 44% more likely than non-tipped athletes to take easy courses.

Football players are 47% more likely than students who are not football players to take easy courses, and men’s ice hockey players are 93% more likely than other students to take easy courses.

The report frequently breaks down statistics on male athletes by those on these “two weakest teams” and all other male athletes. Apparently football and hockey players are much worse than other male athletes, though some are clearly exceptions to this generalization — my former JA is a men’s ice hockey player, and he’s pre-med.

Legacies, by way of comparison, are 24% more likely than other students to take easy courses.

24% more likely to take easy courses still sounds like a lot, but I can’t pick on legacy students on an alumni blog. :)

The Economics and History departments (more on them below) had this to say about varsity athletes:

Many of the poorest students are male athletes, from two teams in particular. The disparity in the abilities of students is “not trivial,” and these teachers are concerned with the lower level of the distribution. They compare their situation to a coach having to play players who are not talented and do not want to play, and feel that they must often “dumb-down” their offerings to accommodate weaker students.The greatest concern of the faculty in the Economics and History Departments, however, is evidence of anti-intellectualism, of clear disengagement and even outright disdain, on the part of varsity athletes, again in particular sports. “Disdain is a big problem.” There is an “astounding level of disengagement.” Such an attitude is especially troubling because it affects the entire chemistry of a class.

42% of non-athletes say that they are less likely to take a course if it has the reputation of drawing members of a particular team, and 23% of students say that the chemistry of classes is significantly affected by the team affiliations of its students.

One faculty member was sufficiently discouraged by the impact of athletes that she had come to feel it is sometimes better that athletes skip class. Then, at least, they do not taint the rest of the class with their attitude of disdain.


Continuing with the theme of intellectual disengagement, athletes take bigger classes, and fewer tutorials:

Reviewing the median enrollments for sections taken by students, we found the median course size was 26 for male non-athletes in 1999-00 and 25 for female non-athletes. For varsity athletes, male and female alike, the median enrollment was 31. These numbers are very consistent for teams we checked on, with the exception of football players. The median enrollment for sections taken by football players was 35.We find that 18% of AAs [see below] – as opposed to 34% of all other students – graduating from ’94 to ’00 took a tutorial. During the year ’99-’00 (the one year for which we have the full list of varsity athletes), 4% of all varsity athletes and 13% of all other students took a tutorial. Assuming that the numbers are typical of other years, they suggest that whereas AAs take tutorials at about half the rate of other students, varsity athletes take tutorials at a bit less than one-third the rate of other students.

The “A” attribute is assigned to students by the Admissions Department after they are admitted, and it means that a coach thinks that the student is capable of playing four years of a varsity sport. The report uses the term “AAs,” but never defines it.

Varsity athletics create tension between athletic and academic faculty:

Coaches believe academic faculty commonly violates the Division of the Day; 33% of coaches believe the violations by academic faculty are “very common” and 52% that violations are “fairly common.” Academic faculty, on the other hand, think coaches commonly violate the Division of the Day. 24% of the academic faculty think violations by coaches are “very common,” 39% that violations are “fairly common,” for a total of 63%

And then the athletes are arrogant about it!

66% of faculty report varsity athletes are more likely than other students to presume their scheduling needs will be accommodated.

Division 2 bears the weight of varsity athletics much more than the other two divisions:

At least 66% of students who were flagged as athletes when they applied for admission to the College are Division 2 majors. In the graduation years 1998-2002, 23% of the degrees awarded to “A” attributes were in Economics, 17% were in Psychology, 13% were in Political Science, and 13% were in History.

Looking at the data from the other direction:

For Division 1, 16.7% of graduates in the years from 1998-2002 had entered Williams with the A attribute; for Division 3, 16.8% of graduates in the years from 1998-2002 had entered Williams with the A attribute; for Division 2, 29% of graduates – 57% more than the other two divisions – in the years from 1998-2002 entered Williams with the A attribute.

If you’re interested in this aspect, the report has several enlightening tables about 2/3 of the way down the page that break this down by major and gender.

The varsity athletics issue also pertains to the tenure issue discussed on Thursday:

Some faculty, especially several untenured ones, made an additional point bearing on their roles as teachers. They feel under pressure to acquiesce to the demands of athletes, sometimes against their better judgment. They worry that they will “get hurt” on the SCS forms “if you are mean to students.”Coaches, hearing academic faculty complain about the poor performance of some athletes, point out that the grades of many athletes are reasonably high. If academic faculty is awarding satisfactory grades, they ought not to be surprised that students and coaches regard the academic performance of athletes as satisfactory. [The report points out that inflated grades may be somewhat caused by athletes’ tendencies to take easier classes than the general population, as discussed above.] The tenured faculty, which has less reason to worry about SCS results, needs to assume leadership on this score. It is our prerogative and our responsibility to establish academic standards.

I am a varsity athlete (cross country — admittedly somewhat borderline varsity), and I think that my life is better for it. However, I definitely feel that athletics significantly defines the culture of the college (I tell my friends from home that although we don’t have frats, we do have sports teams, which serve much the same purpose) and I am much happier having other people think of me as a runner, even when I am out of season, than I would be if people thought I was not an athlete.

At Williams, it feels like everyone’s an athlete — everyone seems to running, or play IM sports, or use the climbing wall — which is definitely a healthy thing, but as the report points out, this “sound mind in a sound body” theory would argue for a PE program; it doesn’t necessitate a Sears Cup-level program.

My childhood friend, who is a year younger than I, looked at Williams when she was considering her college choices. She plays the oboe and the piano, sings, dances, acts, and does all sorts of wonderful things, but she is not an athlete. On her tour, she and her dad report that her tour guide repeated three times the impressive statistic that Williams wins 77% of its games. She was turned off by this athletic focus, and nothing I said could get her to reconsider and apply to Williams. This is sad. Are we alienating many such prospective students? Look on the bright side — that leaves more spots for athletes!

This report and its generalizations must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, to any generalization you make about athletics at Williams, there is an exception — and her name is Jenn Campbell. Jenn Campbell ’05 was third at the Division III cross country nationals, and she is also Phi Beta Kappa. In other words, Jenn Campell is to discussions of the evils of athletics what the Cantor set is to real analysis: the ultimate counterexample.

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