One of the great moments in my life occurred about two weeks ago. On January 8th the Williams Men Swimming and Diving Team defeated Amherst in a dual meet 134-109. This victory came after two seasons of losing the dual meet to Amherst despite going on to finish ahead of them in winning the NESCAC championships. I understand that as a practical matter the world will little note nor long remember the results of Williams-Amherst dual meets. But I am pretty sure that I will personally never forget those meets. Being part of a team and pushing yourself to the limit to accomplish great things is an opportunity that you do not normally get inside the classroom, yet it is an experience that has formed a crucial part of my education.
Very few institutions can make a claim to having the overall athletic success that Williams has had throughout its history. From the very first intercollegiate baseball game, played between Williams and Amherst on July 1, 1859, athletics have had a profound impact on the shape and function of the college. Even back in 1859 that influence also extended beyond those actually on the playing field. Many years after that first baseball game, the Williams catcher, Samuel W. Pratt, received a letter from a young man he had taught at Sunday School who could often be found sitting on a nearby fence watching the Williams team prepare for that game. The young man had gone on to become a missionary in India, and in that post he was credited with leading thousands of new converts to the church and over a hundred young men to the ministry. In his letter he informed Pratt, “It was not your Sunday School teaching, but your baseball playing that brought me to Christ.”
Because of this incredible athletic success and the profound impact of athletics on the entire college, many have questioned whether Williams is staying true to the NESCAC ideal that “competing players are to be representative of the student body.” That question formed the center of the “Report on Varsity Athletics” discussed on day three of the CGCL, as well as other recent studies such as the Game of Life. In “It’s All About Who Gets In,” Williams Baseball and Football coach Dave Barnard offers his own exploration of “exactly how ‘representative’ our athletes are relative to both similar institutions and other groups that receive an “attribute” tag in the Williams admissions office.”
Not particularly surprisingly, Barnard comes to a conclusion that is in many ways the opposite of that offered in the “Report on Varsity Athletics.” According to Barnard, “Williams has always accomplished the most with the least admissions support,” mostly in that we have pursued a very low number of overall tips (66) while at the same time having a fairly high number of overall sports (33). We have also done more than most schools to limit the number of low-band admits; in 2002, for example, Williams admitted only 10 low-rated athletes while Amherst admitted 19.
Barnard also argues that Williams athletic dominance is something of a myth, with our jump in winning percentage from 54.1% to 77.1% over the last 20 years largely coming from changes in scheduling. He also points out that when Williams won the Sears cup in 2001 and 2002, 83% of our overall points came from “men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s skiing, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s golf, and women’s crew – individual sports that traditionally require limited admissions support.” Although that percentage has likely shrunk recently due to success in national competition among some of the more traditional team sports (notably Men’s basketball), it is still likely true that a large portion of our athletic success comes from the often overlooked individual sports.
Based on these factors, Barnard actually proposes that Williams adopt the NESCAC policy of 2.5 tips per varsity sport, giving us 81 tips overall. He suggests that these 81 tips be distributed with “20 in the low band (7 admissions reader rating/1150-1250 SAT’s range), 40 in the middle band (5 or 6 admissions reader ratings/1250-1400 SAT’s range), 21 in an expanded high band (3 or 4 admissions reader ratings/1400-1500 SAT’s range) plus 12 ‘protects’ (3 admissions reader rating/1450-1500 SAT range).” This, Barnard contends, would “allow athletics to give admissions back 7 slots while maintaining an average reader rating of 4.9, 1/10 of a point below where it was 3 years ago.” And thus Williams would be able to both maintain its “tradition of academic and athletic excellence” while at the same time “meeting the escalating academic requirements associated with globalization and an international applicant pool.”
Barnard is clearly taking a controversial position in actually proposing something of an extension in the tips system at a time in which most observers are urging for further contraction and limitation. Although he does make a convincing case that Williams has limited itself far more than its sister institutions in terms of tips, it is difficult to imagine that his expansion, and particularly the doubling of the number of low-band tips, would ever be approved in the current environment. Beyond that central point, Barnard’s article also offers several other interesting areas for discussion.
One point that actually came up in the CGCL day three discussion of the “Report on Varsity Athletics” that is strongly supported by Barnard is the refusal of college administrators to release information and be open about the admissions process. From Barnard we learn that the Williams Admissions Office has 35 different attribute codes with which to label applicants. Before concluding that athletics has an undue influence on the admissions process or that athletes somehow perform differently within the Williams community than other students, it would seem logical to conduct similar studies on these 35 other attributes. However, the “Report on Varsity Athletics” does not do this, and when Barnard attempted to look through the admissions data and conduct his own research he was refused access because “the release of ‘highly confidential’ admissions data could ‘stigmatize some groups.'”
As Barnard points out, that is far from a compelling reason. As an athlete, albeit a mediocre one, I feel more than a little upset that the college sees no problem in stigmatizing me as someone who disdains educations, has ruined the departments of division II, and is threatening the very nature of our institution without giving me equal access to the data from which I can draw my own conclusions. In any discussion of athletics and the admissions process it would be very helpful to know how athletes compare to musicians, actors, artists, minorities, legacies, and any other category of applicant that is admitted for reasons beyond pure academic accomplishments. Even without that, though, it would be nice if the college released the data upon which the “Report on Varsity Athletics” was based, so that we did not have to rely upon merely those statistics the authors chose to share with us. The lack of openness in this entire process is not only counterproductive towards reaching any true and meaningful conclusion on what athletics should mean to the admissions process in the future, it also gives a clear indication that the college has something to hide.
The stigmatism placed on athlete by the “Report on Varsity Athletics” and other such books and articles is also unfortunate in that the Barnard articles suggests that most sports at Williams are doing this right. It seems that many of the most successful varsity sports at Williams achieve their success with only limited admissions assistance. As the “Report” notes, most of the trouble seems to come from two men’s teams, which is supported by the surprising revelation that unlike other sports, which receive only 2 tips each, football receives 14 tips. Football does require a lot of players in order to field a team, but 14 tips a year still seems excessive. Perhaps before any discussion on limiting the total number of tips, we should discuss why football gets such preference within the tips system and whether limiting them first would be a better strategy than simply further cutting down the total number of tips. Either way, it is unfortunate that all 33 varsity teams and 640 or so varsity athletes at this college get equally stigmatized for what seems to mostly be the faults of a small minority.
One final piece of information to note is that tips only account for about 12% of the overall student body, while 32% of the students play varsity sports. This certainly seems to suggest that tips are not completely dominating Williams athletics and taking all spots away from non-tips. Indeed, tips are far less than half of all varsity athletes at Williams. Of course, if one of the central purposes and benefits of having athletics teams is in the lessons they teach to those that are on them, are not having any tips on those teams at all restricting the number of “normal” students who can learn those lessons? As the “Report” puts it, “The lessons are taught to students, who often are recruited because they already are accomplished athletes, and are not really available to students who are indifferent as athletes.”
The problem with this logic is that it fails to understand athletics. Williams would never release a report contending that we should only admit people with mediocre academic skills because those people would clearly have more to gain from a Williams education than those students who are already pretty smart. Our admissions department justifiably works off of the assumption that academic excellence requires the input of a lot of people who are already very good at academics. The same is true about athletics. And music. And art. And any other discipline. By bringing people who excel in these different disciplines together, they can best teach each other the lessons learned in their diverse commitments.
So the “Report” is wrong to suggest that it is a lack of spots that is keeping indifferent athletes from learning the lessons that come from athletics. Someone who is indifferent as an athlete will never learn the lessons that come along with competing on an athletic team, just as someone who is indifferent as a musician will never learn the valuable lessons that come along with mastering a musical instrument. It is simply not possible to achieve in any endeavor without some combination of skill and passion, and tipped athletes provide much of both of those two factors to Williams athletics. Not only do they bring skill and expertise that can raise the abilities of the other athletes around them, but the victories they help to provide raise the passion of the entire program.
For that reason I think the biggest beneficiaries of the tips program are mediocre athletes like myself. I certainly would not be doing two difficult practices a day during the cold and dark month of January for just a PE program. Nor would I likely have the same commitment to and passion for competing on a mediocre team. Desire to accomplish individual goals can only push an athlete so far. But knowing that through all these difficult practices I can contribute, even if only a little bit, to a team that can beat Amherst in a dual meet and go on to win the NESCAC championships, well, that builds the kind of passion that will get a guy out of bed and to the pool at seven in the morning when it’s negative two outside. And that’s the kind of passion that helps a mediocre athlete like me learn the lessons about teamwork, commitment, perseverance, and leadership, among others, that make athletics such a valuable and influential part of our college.