This year’s athletic report is much, much shorter than the one I first discussed in 2004 (known as the MacDonald report); this one is just a follow-up. It is only four pages long, so any of you who are really interested should consider reading the whole thing. I have excerpted over 50% of the entire document below.

First, good news:

We find that the gap in academic performance, as judged by grade point average, has narrowed substantially overall and has essentially disappeared for female athletes and for male athletes in low-profile sports. The gap for male athletes in high-profile varsity sports (which we defined as football, ice hockey, basketball, and baseball […]) appears to be narrowing, but persists even after we adjust for 1) academic qualifications prior to enrolling at Williams College, 2) socio-economic status, and 3) the individual’s year (e.g. sophomore, senior). Thus academic under-performance by male varsity athletes in high-profile sports continues, and cannot be attributed to academic credentials prior to Williams or to socioeconomic status.

Five years ago, the females’ difference was very small — less than .05, if I recall — so I am not surprised that the effect has disappeared completely. Also, note that five years ago, men’s football and hockey were the only sports singled out in various statistics (which led to their being called, colloquially, “helmet-sport athletes”) such as the following:

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.

Now, the list of “high-profile,” i.e. “low-achieving” teams has grown to include men’s basketball and baseball as well.

Note that in this paragraph, the committee says that “academic under-performance by male varsity athletes in high-profile sports continues, and cannot be attributed to academic credentials prior to Williams.” Okay, next paragraph:

The narrowing of the overall academic performance gap since 2002 could be due to any of a number of factors (perhaps including changes in team culture during the past decade) but one likely factor is the change in admissions standards for athletic “tips”. The minimum qualifications required for admission to Williams have been raised during the intervening years, and are continuing to rise.

Thus varsity athletes’ academic preparation for Williams College is increasingly similar to that of the rest of the student body. Our data indicate that academic under-performance by male varsity athletes playing high-profile sports can largely be attributed to those who are less well-prepared academically for Williams, and thus it is our sense that the “raising of the floor” for admissions tips may have been an important factor in reducing overall difference in the GPAs of varsity athletes and non-athletes.

Wait, first the difference is not attributable to differences in preparation before Williams, and they say that “academic under-performance by male varsity athletes playing high-profile sports can largely be attributed to those who are less well-prepared academically for Williams.” Huh? I sense a contradiction here. True, the first paragraph discusses a static difference (between GPAs of athletes vs. non-athletes just this year) and the second discusses a change (the GPAs have gotten closer together over time), but the underlying forces are the same. These two paragraphs certainly appear to contradict each other. Thoughts?

The report goes on to discuss that high-profile athletes tend to congregate in Division II majors, and that all athletes take tutorials and write honors theses at a lower rate than non-athletes. This is important stuff, but it appears to be unchanged since the MacDonald report.

Now the committee does an interesting comparison:

Some possibilities [for athletes’ underachievement] that have been raised in the literature and in our discussions are 1) “stigma” – that some faculty members have a negative view of athletes and that this could affect grades and admission to courses; 2) that athletes experience stereotype threat; 3) that recruited varsity athletes are primarily committed to their sport and coach and do not place as high a priority on academics as do other students; 4) that some teams’ culture promotes a disengagement from academics; and 5) that investing time and energy in athletics reduces time spent on other activities.

I agree with this analysis. I cannot think of any significant reason that is not on this list. I think — and this opinion is heavily influenced by taking a course with Sheafe Satterthwaite, who spoke of football being a “fifth class” for football players — that #5 is the most probable reason. The writers of the report apparently agree, because they did a great comparison:

We did investigate the “time and energy” hypothesis indirectly by asking whether JAs (a group of students with a substantial time commitment to an extracurricular activity that spans the entire year) demonstrate any under-performance in terms of GPA and low rates of enrollment in tutorials. After correcting for academic preparation, sex, and socioeconomic status, the grades of JAs were statistically indistinguishable from those of other juniors, although they enrolled in tutorials at a slightly lower rate than did their peers. Which of the other explanations might help to explain academic under-performance by male varsity athletes in high-profile sports at Williams College is not clear. It is our view that this question merits further study, and we recommend that the college take advantage of a future COFHE questionnaire to ask students about the rationale for their choices and priorities with respect to participating in tutorials and writing theses.

Alas, the result of the analysis was inconclusive. Such is science. “Statistically indistinguishable” makes one wonder which GPA was actually higher, but perhaps it is better that we don’t know, since the difference is not statistically significant — p > 0.05, move along, nothing to see here. Sigh.

The footnote in this section would be of interest to hwc:

A recent study using Swarthmore varsity athletes as subjects demonstrated an effect of stereotype threat; the MacDonald report raised concerns about “athletic culture” discouraging academic engagement; and Bowen and Levin, in “Reclaiming the Game”, favored the explanation that recruited athletes’ first priority is athletics. However, we have no evidence to support or refute any of these hypotheses.

I would think that there would be more of a stigma against athletes at Swarthmore, where the stereotype is of nerdy bookworms, than at Williams, where the stereotype is either “Mens sana in corpore sano” (for the pro-athlete) or “Of course, this isn’t a college. It’s a Nike Camp with enrichment classes” (for the anti-athlete).

Now for the committee’s nine recommendations:

1. That Williams College use the next available opportunity to add questions about students’ reasons for taking tutorials and writing honors theses to an instrument such as the COFHE survey. Doing so could provide important information about why varsity athletes are less likely to take advantage of these academic opportunities.

Already discusssed, just above. It would be nice to find out which are the true reason(s) among the five listed possibilities.

2. That head coaches be provided, once each year, with information about their teams’ academic performance (relative to predicted performance after taking academic preparation, class year, and socioeconomic status into account), as well as information about enrollment in tutorials and undertaking honors theses. We further strongly recommend that this information not be made generally available; it is intended solely to provide athletic faculty with a basis for advising the athletes they coach.

This is a great idea. I was fortunate to be on teams (cross country and track) where the coaches periodically announced that they were proud that the team’s GPA was the highest at Williams, or some such thing. Nearly the whole team was invited to the scholar-athlete dinner, where you had to have a GPA above 3.2.

However, many teams are not so fortunate. If those coaches had hard data that their athletes were underachieving, rather than just suspecting that their athletes were underachieving (and possibly thinking that it was due to poor preparation before Williams) maybe they would do something about it. Dave, of course, might argue that the numbers should be public. However, if the coaches had to see the information, it would be a great improvement.

3. That athletic faculty should be more visibly included in the academic life and governance of the college. Much of the college’s committee business and many of its intellectually-oriented events are scheduled between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM, precluding participation by athletic faculty who are in their coaching seasons. Both a) scheduling more committee meetings away from those hours and b) developing a seminar series or lunch series that focuses upon topics of interest to both academic and athletic faculty (muscle physiology, pedagogy, some other examples, etc.) would be desirable.

Interesting that they repeat the term “athletic faculty.” The “economics faculty” or “physics faculty” might think of coaches as “athletic staff,” but the report elevates them to their rightful status as faculty. (Student-athletes certainly learn as much from their coaches — their “sports class” — as from their academic courses; see Satterthwaite’s “football class” reference above.) It would certainly be good for coaches and professors to know each other better. I recall EphBlog’s recently discussing a computer science faculty member being the “faculty liason” to the volleyball team (but cannot find the reference). My psychology professor regularly brought his sons to basketball games. Cool! Keep it up. And maybe even institutionalize it, as they recommend.

While we’re on the subject of 4 pm to 6 pm: I was once selected to be a Class of 1960 Scholar in the psychology department. I happily accepted it, only to find out that the lectures were at 4:00 pm. I told the professor in charge that I had practice each day at 4:15 and asked which of the lectures I would be able to attend. “None of them” was the answer. Some of those lectures were interesting! But I couldn’t attend them, and neither could any other athletes (except on Mondays, when we had a later pool practice.) And no one seemed to care, apparently assuming that any serious student who was interested in the lectures would be a non-athlete. Pity.

4. That first-year varsity athletes who participate in Men’s Soccer, Women’s Soccer, Volleyball, Field Hockey and Football be better integrated into the student body early in their first semester. Scheduling does not allow many of these students the option of choosing any Ephventures program that they would like; instead varsity athletes tend to choose the Ephventure option that does not conflict with their athletic schedule […]

A valid point, but one that was not even hinted at in the text of the document. I remember feeling bad for the girl in my entry who was on the soccer team, and thus didn’t get to go on WOOLF or even the Williams-based programs. It’s hard to avoid, though, because I think those days are when the coaches have tryouts and cuts. (Is this correct?) So then you’d have to either have tryouts before WOOLF, and therefore have all prospective varsity athletes, including first-years, on campus before WOOLF started, which would be hard for JAs and would single out athletes, or you would have to postpone tryouts until after WOOLF, which for sports that start having games right away would be infeasible. If I can figure out why athletes can’t do WOOLF, I’d think that the writers of this report know full well why athletes can’t do WOOLF.

Personal anecdote: Cross country has no cuts, so no tryouts. One year, a top recruit, who had run under 5:00 for the mile in high school, told Pete Farwell that she wasn’t sure about going on WOOLF. “Those are some of the most important training days of the season!” she said, thinking that she should get in some workouts instead of just hiking. “But first-year orientation are some of the most important days of your college experience,” he responded. Off she went for three days of hiking and bonding in the woods.

5. That a session on issues specific to varsity athletes be included as a component of JA training (in the context of diversity).

Hmmm. We have previously discussed on EphBlog the packed schedule of JA training and how very focused on diversity issues it already is. Dave has made the point that it is much better to have JA bonding activities, so that JA’s have others to lean on in times of stress and crisis, than to have yet another diversity seminar. However, with 30% of the student body in athletics (and perhaps a higher percentage of first-years), in an ideal world with two weeks for training, it could be argued that this should be on the schedule. (But only after they learn the words to “The Mountains.”)

6. […] It is our understanding that the admissions standards for “tips” are continuing to rise, and the recruited athletes in future entering classes are likely to be more similar, in their academic credentials, to their non-athlete peers. Although we note that this may affect the success of Williams College teams, we unanimously support the continuation of this trend.

Low-profile sports never make it to national championships anyway, and thus don’t affect the Director’s Cup, so who cares about them, anyway? (Well, except the students and alumni who enjoy watching football and basketball games on campus… and basketball has made it to the championships…) But I also agree with this. Recall from in the original report, the following observation:

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.

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. Let’s try to keep distain out of the tips. Okay, next one.

7. In order to improve communication about potential conflicts between exams and athletic commitments, we recommend that the web page that lists athletic events that could conflict with academic events be coordinated with the web page the Registrar’s office maintains listing the calendar of evening exams. It would also be desirable to list the academic faculty associates for those varsity teams that have them.

Wow, I’m not sure if that first sentence is even grammatical. It could use some commas.

Anyway, technology could help, even with normal, non-exam scheduling. If someone — say, a psychology professor — is trying to list a lecture from 4 pm – 5 pm, there could be a popup to inform her, “This conflicts with sports practices and the Division of the Day. No athletes will be able to attend this lecture! Please consider conforming to the rules and scheduling it outside of the 4 pm – 6 pm window.”

8. The 2009-2010 Athletics Committee should revisit two additional questions raised by the MacDonald report: a) Whether “clumping” of varsity athletes’ course choices exists, and if so, whether this presents a problem; b) Whether varsity athletes generate more disciplinary problems than do non-athletes.

Recall these two relevant excerpts from the MacDonald report, discussed five years ago:

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.

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.


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.

It would obviously be good to know if those depressing statistics are still valid or if they have improved.

9. Finally, we recommend that studies of academic performance by athletes continue to be carried out periodically by the Athletics Committee. We recommend that the interval between such studies be five years. Reports of differences in academic performance tend to contribute to a sense of stigma and to stereotype threat among varsity athletes, but failure to report on athletes’ academic performance studies is equally undesirable; a 5-year interval is a reasonable compromise.

That means they think another review, of the scope and thoroughness of the MacDonald report, should have been done this year, or should at least be done next year. I agree! I love statistics, especially current ones. And you know that when and if they do another one, EphBlog will be here to discuss it!

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