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CGCL, Day 3: A hard look at varsity athletics

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.

Ouch.

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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#1 Comment By Loweeel On January 18, 2005 @ 10:35 am

Also, Rhodes Scholar Jeff Ishizuka!

#2 Comment By anonymous On January 18, 2005 @ 11:52 am

Ultimate counterexample?

We’re focusing the role of athletics with respect to admissions, right? Presumably Jenn Campbell and Jeff Ishizuka were academic 1s (or, at the worst, 2s) and didn’t need tips or even protects. Anyone who asserts that athletes universally detract from intellectualism on campus is a fool.

The question I’m interested in is whether tips, protects, and any other mechanisms by which coaches fiddle with the admissions process improves or detracts from campus life.

#3 Comment By Yeah On January 18, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

what do a Rhodes Scholar and some XC summa cum laude girl have to do with bone dumb hockey players?

#4 Comment By David On January 18, 2005 @ 1:54 pm

Note that Oren Cass ’05 provided lots of interesting commentary on the report last year. Start here and here. Look at this whole week’s worth of posts for related issues.

#5 Comment By Loweeel On January 18, 2005 @ 4:55 pm

I’d be very interested to see the stats on rugby players as compared to varsity atheletes.

Some of the smartest people I know from williams were rugby players, as were some of the least intelligent ones I met.

#6 Comment By David On January 18, 2005 @ 9:01 pm

I have sent in a request to the authors of the Report that the data be made public. Any data that allowed for identification of an individual student can not, of course, be made public. The College also closely (and rightly) guards admissions-related data. Still, there is no reason that I can think of why some of the data (relating to the survey, for example) can not be made public.

Another option would be to make the data available to someone like Diana who might answer questions like Lowell’s while maintaining the confidentiality underlying data. The College often lets current students have access to this sort of data for senior theses and the like.

The sine qua non of serious scholarly work lies in its public nature. Any result that can not be replicated is a result that should be ignored. Fortunately, I know for a fact that Professors like MacDonald and Sheppard (and, I’d wager, the rest of the authors) are scholars who take their responsibilities seriously, so I am hopeful that we might be able to answer Lowell’s question.

#7 Comment By Diana On January 18, 2005 @ 9:25 pm

When I said “the ultimate counterexample,” I meant for things like this:

“Anyone who’s really good at sports can’t be good at academics.”
“No, actually Jenn Campbell (Jeff Ishizuka) is Phi Beta Kappa (a Rhodes Scholar).”

“The only reason Williams gets good athletes is because of tips.”
“No, I highly doubt Jenn (Jeff) was tipped.”
(This addresses your question, “anonymous”)

“If you want to be a good student, you can’t devote a lot of time to sports.”
“No, actually I’m sure Jenn (Jeff) does.”

Lowell, although it would be interesting to look at rugby data, I doubt that it is available since it’s a club sport. That said, current and former captains might have full rosters, which is all you would need (plus access to the data) to do the same analysis done in the report.

Of the six (?) students who got Herschel-Smith fellowships or the equivalent last year, two (Engler and Eisler) were cross country runners, and two (Scroggins and Horowitz) were on the crew team — Hayley Horowitz was actually All-American.

Williams is full of “exceptions” like this because we tend to admit and matriculate a lot of exceptional people. It is precisely for this reason that the statistics (“men’s ice hockey players are 93% more likely than other students to take easy courses”) and opinions (“she had come to feel it is sometimes better that athletes skip class”) in the report are so horrifying.

#8 Comment By David On January 18, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

How would a cynic read the Report?

A cynic would argue that the authors of the Report very much wanted to come to the same conclusion that Shulman and Bowen come to in The Game of Life [TGOL] — roughly that an excessive focus on athletics is bad for a place like Williams as well as for the varsity athletes that it admits. But, and this is the proverbial dog that did not bark, they failed. No matter how they tortured the data, Williams turned out to contradict some of the key findings from TGOL.

So, instead of finding what they sought, the authors had no better option than to slant the report in such a way as justify a decision that had already been made by then-new President Schapiro: serious athletic ability would count for much less in admissions decisions in the future than it had in the 1990’s.

A cynic would note that the authors seem to concede that Shulman and Bowen [SB] are wrong about the ills caused by the “culture of athletics,” at least with respect to Williams. A key point in TGOL is that varsity athletes do less well in college than students with similar high school grades and SATs because, SB imply, there is too much focus on athletics and (inevitably) a sort of anti-intellectualism develops as a result. But, at Williams, the authors admit:

The grades of our athletes are lower than the grades of our non-athletes, which should not surprise us. They are often weaker students when they enter Williams, and they commit much time and effort to their sports. It is predictable that they would be weaker students in Williams, suggesting a second question: do athletes underperform academically, controlling for their academic ratings at the time they were admitted? The data is mixed, but suggests on balance that our athletes achieve about the same grades as non-athletes with similar academic ratings.

This is a critically different result than SB found. No one denies that students with 1200 combined SAT scores are going to have, on average, more trouble at Williams than students with 1500s. But, if football players with 1200s do as well as non-football players with 1200s — whether they be legacies, faculty children, very wealthy, very poor, a desirable shade of purple or in any other category that allows one to get into Williams with 1200s — then what is the problem with football?

Short answer: There isn’t much of one. If varsity athletes do as well as similarly qualified non-varsity athletes, then the varsiy athlete-ness part them can not be fairly blamed for their poor performance.

[Note that when the authors admit that the data was “mixed,” a cynic with experience in data analysis will be quite curious. Just how mixed was the data?]

So far, so good. But having admitted this key fact — surely the most interesting and (to some) surprising part of the entire report — the authors then do a very sly thing. They note that “There are problems, however, with using grades as a sole measure of academic performance.” Fair enough. And, after some more analysis, conclude that

Athletes, to summarize, achieve lower grades than other students overall, but achieve about the same grades as students with similar academic ratings. They tend to take easier courses, larger courses, and fewer tutorials than the student body as a whole.

Notice the trick here? Having admitted that athletes do as well as similarly qualified non-athletes (and being clearly disappointed in this result), they pull a bait-and-switch and start to compare athletes to all students again!

No one would be shocked to know that 1200-type students take larger, easier courses. Given that varsity athletes come to Williams with less impressive academic credentials, it is hardly surpising that they do so. The same is probably true for other categories of students with similar advantages.

But the authors do not do that fair test. They do not tell us about the class-selection habits of students that are matched for ability to varsity athletes but are not varsity athletes themselves. This is the only fair comparison.

At this point, a cynic would note that there are two possibilities for why the authors pull such a dodge:

  1. They knew that they wanted to make a case for decreasing the emphasis on athletics, so they needed to say something bad about the academic seriousness of varsity athletes. By comparing them, unfairly, to non-athletes, they could find some bad things to say.
  2. They were not smart enough to realize what the appropriate comparison was.

Neither conclusion is particularly heartening.

For the record, I should note that I am not a cynic about this Report. I think that it is extremely well done. Many of its recommendations are excellent. It is a shame that the College refuses to post it publicly.

I am also probably in agreement with President Schapiro that admissions standards now are better than they were 10 years ago, even though it means that Williams will not win nearly as many football games in the future.

But I know an empirical bait-and-switch when I see it. It is certainly the case that less academically gifted students avoid tutorials and difficult majors. Perhaps this is a problem. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps Williams should admit fewer students with below 1300 SATs, whatever their other winning attributes. Perhaps Williams should admit more.

But the Report presents no empirical evidence that varsity athletes, even (especially?) athletes on problematic sports like football and hockey, do worse than other students with similar high school grades and SAT scores.

Given the tenor of the Report, the only reasonable conclusion to draw from this fact is that there is no such evidence.

#9 Comment By Diana On January 18, 2005 @ 11:40 pm

Arrr…

How is it that when I write something critical or analytical, I completely miss the point until later, when someone points it out to me like this, at which point it becomes quite clear? Hmmm.

In other words, good point.

#10 Comment By Eislerman On January 19, 2005 @ 6:07 am

However, Engler and I are also both raving sociopaths. The effects of athletics ain’t just on SAT scores and GPA, even if those’re the most perspicuous possible points of impact. A sports-intensive environment can transform attitudes and intellectual culture, and if anything I’d say that’s the real issue.

One of my friends speculated that you can be good at 2 out of 3 things: relationships, academics, and athletics. If we substitute ‘socially conscious extracurriculars’ for relationships, then we end up with the real question. To what degree are athletics excluding other types of engagement with the world? I’d say the real *chokes on his own phleghm* ultimate counterexample *stops choking* would be Healy Thompson, who despite being able to shotput small automobiles into Vermont was still deeply involved in issues of social and ethical import.

The real question is, I think, a normative one. To what degree do we want folks who are taking Social Psych in order to get A+s so they can get nice i-banking jobs? It’s easy to say ‘We don’t want to be Swarthmore’ in a pejorative sense, but a lot harder to wrestle with the question of the real function of education. This was an issue I think the report deliberately avoided raising explicitly (or excessively), but that it really should evoke.

#11 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 6:49 am

Exercise for the reader: Deconstruct the following passage from the Report.

What the Committee finds, in other words, is something akin to a culture of athletics. Athletes, who often are drawn and brought to Williams because they are athletes, feel comfortable here socially. They do not think they preside over social life, but other students believe that they do. Athletes live and socialize together. Moreover, a majority of non-athletes disapproves of the social prominence of athletes. Over half of non-athlete students feel defined as non-athletes, over half of non-athlete students feel athletics is too pervasive here, and over half of our non-athlete students feel too much importance is attached to belonging to teams.

Key questions:

  1. Is the phrase “culture of athletics: chosen randomly, without reference to either The Gane of Life or Reclaiming the Game?
  2. What evidence is there that other students feel that athletes “preside” over social life? Do you think that a majority of Williams students would answer “Yes” to the question: “Do varsity athletes preside over the social life of the college?
  3. Do athletes “live and socialize” together more than any other group with similar interests and/or backgrounds?
  4. Do you think that this paragraph is a fair summary of the material presented in the Report? Do you think it significant that the Report, violating the standard best practices with regard to opinion research, does not release the actual questions and the raw numbers?

#12 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 7:21 am

Lest I be pigeon-holed as anti-Report, I should note that, as mentioned by Diana, the section on the experiences of different departments is brillant, both substantively and rhetorically. It is almost impossible to read this and not conclude that there is, indeed, A Problem and that Something Must Be Done.

I have no doubt that this portion of the Report is accurate and important. Some comments:

  1. To the extent there is a problem, it has nothing to do with female athletes. There is no reason to decrease the number of female tips.
  2. To the extent that there is a problem, it has little if anything to do with male athletes on smaller, lower profile teams. Say what you will about the cross country team’s drinking habits, runners do not mess up any other Eph’s classroom experience.
  3. Football and mens hockey players make for trouble.
  4. Other mens sports teams (lacrosse? soccer? basketball?) may be an issue, but much less so.
  5. Note that “some team members take courses in packs, adopting “tag-team” approaches for attendance and assignments.”

This raises a very different set of concerns than the relative performance of legacies with 1200s versus football players with 1200s that I addressed above. Even if football players with 1200s do as well as other students with similar backgrounds, the fact that they take classes together makes for a completely different picture. As Diana points out, the Report is absolutely (and correctly) damning in this regard.

That is, even though there is no underperformance, there is still a big problem when academically ill-prepared students can so easily coordinate their behavior. Stupid legacies can not so easily, if at all, affect the chemistry of individual classes and departments because they are not aware of each other. There is no t-shirt that they can wear to identify themselves to each other.

But for certain sports in particular, and even for ill-prepared male athletes in general, coordination is easy.

I think that decreasing the number of tips, especially low band tips, is a reasonable response to the problems outlined in this section of the report. Yet, a lot more could and should be done to decrease the lack of academic seriousness that infects many Division 2 departments, a lack that is both cause and consequence of excessive enrollment by ill-prepared and unmotivated students. But perhaps that is a rant for another thread.

#13 Comment By Eric On January 19, 2005 @ 11:30 am

How dare you speak for me, Eisler! For one thing, you are no collegiate athlete. A year spent begging Daub for training advice and struggling at the back of the pack doesn’t make you a cross country runner. I accomplished more at school than you dreamed of. Yeah, that’s right. I got laid.

#14 Comment By Engler On January 19, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

Thanks for the comment, Finley. I do agree with you that Eisler wasn’t really an XC runner as he didn’t put much effort into it, and I don’t appreciate him talking for me. At the same time, I do partially agree with Jacob. For one, a major influence on the college is alumni giving, and as “The Game of Life” points out, athletes do tend to (1) make significantly more money when they graduate and (b) give a lot more back to their alma-mater.

In addition, I think Diana is missing a major component of the role athletics plays at Williams. Yes, we do reject many students with better academic credentials to fit in athletes, but we similarly have many first rate academic students who are also outstanding athletes who apply because of Williams reputation.

In my opinion, the main effect of tips is to increase the overall academic standard at Williams. For instance, Eli Lazarus – one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever met, the hardest worker, and very much an academic – was very heavily influenced to come to Williams by the reputation of the cross country team. Other individuals who have competed at the national level came to Williams without the intention of ever playing a sport! Jen Vorse was 7th at cycling nationals – a sport she picked up as a hobby while at Williams.

Having been at Oxford for only one term, I’ve already noticed a major difference between Williams students and other very academic, very extra-curricular students (British and American alike). We take ourselves much too seriously.

My advice to anyone who thinks there is a problem with athletics at Williams is to chill out and go find something better to do. In fact, go have a drink. The biggest problem at Williams is the lack of social drinking.

#15 Comment By Mike On January 19, 2005 @ 1:30 pm

I haven’t had a chance to read all of the comments, so I apologize if this has been covered, but there is a fundamental question that while not necessarily the focus of the Report is very much at the core of its logic. The Athetlics Department prides itself — rightly — on the important life skills taught by athletics and the importance of a sound mind in a sound body, etc. I agree completely. The question that begs asking, therefore, is how available are athletics to the general student body. The crucial data to find out is what percentage of roster spots at Williams are taken at Williams by tipped athletes. You have roughly 270 tips on campus and a large number are two sport athletes (ergo taking two roster spots). Judging the role of athletics at Williams isn’t just a question of what impact are athletes having in the classroom or what students aren’t being admitted because their spots are “taken.” The more interesting question to me is what students are missing out on learning experiences on the baseball diamond because they’re not good enough to play on a team consisting almost entirely of tips.

This is particularly true of sports like football, hockey, and baseball. At one point you have football getting 15 tips and hockey 6 (I believe both numbers have come down in the last year or two, but I’ve been out of the loop since retiring as Record editor). So you have 60 of 75 football players that are tipped and 24 of, what, 30? hockey players tipped. In addition, it’s no coincidence that the baseball coach also happens to be a football coach. So maybe you have two stud baseball prospects applying to Williams but one can also play football at our level. By admitting that one you fill two positions with one tip (good for the coach) but also deny two non-tipped walk ons the opportunity to play or be on the team at all.

The question for me has never been whether tipped athletes “deserve” spots at Williams or whatever else people try to make it. They deserve it as much as most of the rest of the campus do. And for my money, I think some of the nicest and in some cases smartest kids on campus are people who may have been tipped “helmet” sport athletes.

I’ve also never been entirely sympathetic to the argument about what effect athletes have in the classroom. It largely is true that an academic 5 at Williams is capable of doing the work and being a productive member of the classroom. If there is a culture on campus among some athletes of anti-intellectualism than all that needs to happen to stamp it out is for professors to stop feeding into it by not flunking people who deserve to flunk. The handful of people (athletes, legacies, and many others) who detract from the learning environment should be flunked and be done with (this would eventually hurt our USNews ranking).

What does interest me is what opportunities are denied to the Phi Beta Kappa student who is also one of the better non-tipped football players at Williams and what opportunities he missed out on to learn by fighting in the trenches each Saturday. If we have an athletic program and if that program teaches life lessons and is like a 400-level course as Sheehy likes to say, then why aren’t those opportunities available to so many non-tipped athletes?

Finally, to end on a pro-athletics note, I am a strong supporter of Williams being a school for well-rounded students unlike, say, Swarthmore or U.Chicago which attract a student body that, we might say, is not interested in sports. Undoubtedly, being an unbelievable sports school attracts students who are interested in sports even if they don’t play the sport themselves. I was deciding between Williams and Duke and it’s no coincidence that both are great sports schools even though I didn’t play a sport. I don’t think Bart Clareman ’05 would mind my saying that he was definitely interested in Williams because he loves being around athletics. There are tons of other students who came to Williams as opposed to peer schools because of the balance between athletics and academics at Williams. There are also many who did not come because another school’s balance was more to their liking.

Fundamentally, I think the Williams culture has it as best as possible given the realities of the world. I think, as I have said, that there are flaws and major questions to answer, but I’m not sure I have a solution that wouldn’t be worse than the status quo. Williams would be a very different school without tips and I don’t think it would be better.

#16 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 2:03 pm

I don’t want to burden Mike with more reading material, but the issue of students who would make a team and/or start some games were it not for tips is one that we discussed extensively last spring.

Mike claims that “Williams would be a very different school without tips.” Perhaps this is true. But just how different a school would Williams be without any “low band” tips? That is the harder question. The success of many teams would be hardly affected at all. Other teams that right now regularly win NESCAC would be more likely to average 0.500. A few teams (football? mens hockey?) might become perennial losers and be forced to either shut down altogether or play against a very different set of non-NESCAC opponents.

But, as Mike notes, a whole lot of Ephs who want to play varsity sports but who right now don’t make the team would have an opportunity that they otherwise would lack.

I have never met a soccer player who, given a choice between playing for a 0.500 team and cheering for a champsionship team, prefers the latter. But see Oren Cass ’05 for a somewhat dissenting view.

#17 Comment By Mike On January 19, 2005 @ 2:26 pm

The question, David, is what would be the downside of having a football team that competed at a lower level? I think there is a substantial downside in terms of what type of culture we have at Williams. The culture of Williams is very different from the culture of Swarthmore and a large reason for that is our excellence in sport. Nonetheless, people should not ignore the fact that this culture exists because we deny athletic experiences to most walk-ons especially in the high-profile sports.

#18 Comment By Aidan On January 19, 2005 @ 2:28 pm

Engler, I don’t know what you are talking about. however, I think you forgot Aimee Vasse, who was the women’s cycling national champion, in the spring of ’00. I guess that’s the point–we can always find numerous high performing Ephs to admire. Maybe that’s the point.

Then again, and what I think people find troubling about all of this, is the irritating few, the lunkheads that don’t study or care. Maybe we should concentrate on better screening of the bad apples?

But, then again, I found, in my college experience, that it was mostly the athletes that embodied the values of social drinking and extracurricular fun. Something for everyone, I guess.

#19 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 4:22 pm

Mike writes:

The question, David, is what would be the downside of having a football team that competed at a lower level? I think there is a substantial downside in terms of what type of culture we have at Williams. The culture of Williams is very different from the culture of Swarthmore and a large reason for that is our excellence in sport.

I may be qualified to answer this one since, until the late 1980’s Williams football, did compete at a lower level. I have seen little evidence (why oh why doesn’t the administration gather data on this?) to suggest that the “culture” of Williams is that different, with regards to athletics now than it was back in the day. [Note I have no good information on what the “culture” is like today, but almost everything that I have read on the topic is consistent with the Williams of the 1980’s.]

Williams (unlike Swarthmore) then was sporty, known as sporty and filled with people doing sports. I suspect, but do not know, that the same numbers of students played varsity sports and that similar numbers played intramurals and club sports. (Indeed, if anything, there is some evidence that more people played intramurals back then.)

Culture is a tricky thing to define, but, as a rough guide, Williams was a place were a majority of students went off and did something sweaty from 4 to 6 in the afternoon the equivalent of at least one season per year. The essence of the good aspects of the “culture of athletics” is the widespread and serious participation that it engenders and encourages. I believe that this aspect of the culture was the same even when the teams on average, and high profile teams like football, hockey and basketball in particulat, were much less winning than they are now.

So, my answer to Mike is that, even in the extreme case of a dramatic decrease in the number of tips, the culture of athleticism at Williams would remain, more or less, the same. The volleyball players would try as hard, practice as diligently and learn as much from the wonderful experiences that playing a varsity sport provides. They just wouldn’t be as good at volleyball.

It is not obvious to me that this would be a bad outcome.

#20 Comment By Aidan On January 19, 2005 @ 5:05 pm

David, if people really linked bad teams, why are so many Yankees fans? (Actually, maybe that isn’t such a good question, anymore…) I think your analysis really leaves out how deadening and disheartening it must be to have crappy sports teams that lose. What, are we expected to be amHerst now?

#21 Comment By Mike On January 19, 2005 @ 8:40 pm

David: I find your point wanting. First of all, I agree that the culture of Williams is not linked to the fortunes of the football team (though it plays a role). Williams in your time had a 68.5 athletic winning percentage. That’s not too shabby. The fact that we have a similar athletic culture at Williams now as we did then pvoes very little.

More importantly, your contention that the culture of Williams athleticism would remain the same without tips is just not something that I buy for one second. Tips are almost by definition people who come to campus planning on putting a strong focus on athletics. This strong focus is far more than the doing “something sweaty from 4 to 6 in the afternoon the equivalent of at least one season per year” you describe. If the college chose to scale back its focus on athletics you would undoubtedly have a different culture. You would have more students (not that there are none today) who hold athletics, and many other aspects of their lives, as serious priorities.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that discussions of athletics immediately break-down across the “pro-” and “anti-” athletics lines with neither “side” respecting the pros and cons of each argument. The role of athletics at Williams _is_ a difficult question. I came to Williams because of what it is including — to a very significant degree — because it was a great well-rounded school (relative to the rest of academia… are culture as a whole is becoming too specialized for my taste). For every tip that doesn’t represent the Williams ideal, I’m sure I could name a non-tip who is just as bad.

What does need to happen is for these discussions to take place with all participants acknowledging the costs and benefits of any position and then stating where they come down. This is as true for athletics as it is for housing and many other issues.

Unfortunately, we rarely have civil discourse on these subjects. You love the Cheryl Shanks “Nike camp with enrichment courses” quote. I think it’s a major part of the community’s problem.

#22 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 9:38 pm

I love the Shanks quote and always will. Mike writes:

More importantly, your contention that the culture of Williams athleticism would remain the same without tips is just not something that I buy for one second.

It is a shame that the College is not collecting the data right now which would help us to answer this question. My conjecture is that the culture — defined a serious pursuit (not achievement) of athletic excellence — would not be materially affected by a reduction in tips. The College is, right now, doing that experiment, as the Barnard reading for tomorrow makes clear. The emphasis on tips for the class of 2009 is significantly less than that for 1999.

What sort of data would allow us to resolve the dispute?

  1. How many hours does the average varsity athlete devote to her sport?
  2. How many hours does the average JV athlete devote to her sport?
  3. How many hours does the average intra-mural athlete devote to his sport?
  4. How many students do any sort of athletic activity?
  5. How have these numbers changed from 1979 to 1989 to 1999 to today both in absolute terms and relative to other NESCAC schools?

[Here I am assuming that these numbers provide a rough way of operationalizing the concept of a culture of athletics. I certainly believe that the numbers would be very different for Swarthmore.]

I sense that these numbers are high for Williams relative to other schools but have always been high and, baring dramatic changes, always will be high. The greater emphasis on tips in the 1990’s (thank you Tom Parker!?) meant that we won a lot more games, but it did not change the raw number or seriousness of hours devoted to athletics relative to 1989 or to 2005. More tips means more wins, it does not mean more athletics.

Tips are almost by definition people who come to campus planning on putting a strong focus on athletics.

Maybe, but it was not my experience that the more gifted athletes (whether they be tips or not) spent significantly more time on athletics there their less gifted but still varsity peers. Goodness knows I spent as much time as anyone, even the prep-school trained great players, practicing squash. If anything there seemed to be a slightly inverse relationship between talent and effort, with the fellows on the cusp of either making the team or starting putting in the maximum effort.

My guess is that the same is true now and in all sports. Does the mens basktball team practice less seriously or try less hard now then it did two years ago? Do the 6th, 7th and 8th best players show up later for practice than or not play as much in the summer as the starters? I doubt it.

#23 Comment By David On January 19, 2005 @ 9:39 pm

Aidan,

It’s not my claim that, back in the day, people liked having a 0.500 football team. I think that it didn’t really affect the culture of athletics — defined as the amount of time that students devoted to serious athletic activity — much if at all.

I would assume that there must be an effect on some things, presumably including game attendance. Perhaps more students go to basketball games now than in the 1980’s, for example.

I can’t say that I knew anyone who found it “deadening and disheartening . . . to have crappy sports teams that lose”. (Alas, I can not tell if this is ironic, so I’ll treat it straight.) The fact that our hockey team was (I think) quite poor did not affect me in any meaningful way. Not that I wished the hockey players any ill-will, but it just wasn’t that high on my priority list.

All I cared about was making the squash team and getting to, on occasion, start. Looking back, I can barely remember what our record was.

Presumably, all else equal, it would have been even more fun if we had been national champions, but, in that world, I wouldn’t have made the team, much less started a match or two. That would have been disheartening.