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Smith ’55 on Athletic Recruiting

Phil Smith ’55 is quoted in an editorial on athletic recruitment.

In a perfect world, all students would be admitted according to the same standard. But in the real world, universities across America give athletes a break. A 2001 book, “The Game of Life,” documented this double standard even at Ivy League and other selective schools: “Athletic recruiting is the biggest form of affirmative action in American higher education, even at schools such as ours,” says Philip Smith, retired dean of admissions at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in the book.

The more that I find out about this topic, the less true that I think Smith’s claim is. As Dave Barnard documents pretty convincingly, the size of the preference given to (potential) varsity athletes just isn’t that large, especially outside of some specific sports (football and hockey being two of the most important).

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Random Musings About Tips

When I saw Morty speak in New Haven, he said that the question he is asked about most by alumni is the emphasis on athletics at Williams. Sure enough, Morty was asked a few questions about athletics despite his preemptory oratory. Seemingly, alumni are ambivalent about winning 7 of 8 Sears Cups: while they are proud of the accomplishment, they are worried about the effect athletics has on the campus culture. I think a couple of common arguments need to be addressed:

#1: Tipped athletes are less academically able. I don’t think this is really a matter of debate. If a coach has a limited number of tips, why spend it on an athlete whose academics are strong enough to ensure admission? Why not use the tip on an athlete whose academic credentials are significantly weaker? Coaches aren’t stupid and put their tips to best use.

#2: Tipped athletes change the culture of the campus. Again, I’m not sure there can be much serious debate about this topic. While I met some extremely smart athletes at Williams, would anyone seriously argue that the hockey team is a bastion of learned discourse? If you were forced to categorize the football team as intellectual or anti-intellectual, which of the two categories would you choose? Many of the tipped athletes know they were admitted despite questionable academic credentials and adopt the identity of a dumb jock. [Note: In my entry, the football, hockey, and basketball player got into an argument as to whose SAT scores were lowest — it wasn’t clear whether the winner had the high or low score.] This anti-intellectual culture spreads through the team and the athletes’ social circles making the culture more pervasive. At my reunion, I was struck by the degree to which our class was bifurcated: athletes on one side of the room and non-athletes on the other.

#3: Tips are necessary to maintain the quality of the sports teams. Anyone who argues otherwise is seriously underestimating the skill of the athletes at Williams. Dartmouth is considered the jock school of the Ivies, but they routinely lose to Princeton and UPenn teams that admit better athletes (with questionable academic resumes). Trinity and Connecticut College have lower admission standards than Williams and routinely lose to the Ephs. Sure, Williams has good coaching, but good athletes are a must (unless you are Jerry Sloan — but even he missed the playoffs this year).

I think these three “facts” can be used to construct three models/archetypes for elite liberal arts colleges. I’ll attach a name to each model, but the name is intended to be impressionistic. The goal is to illustrate what Williams might look like under different admission regimes, not seriously compare different schools.

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A quick glance at the data

There are a couple of plausible arguments for large investments in sports at large universities:
1) Alumni donations;
2) Free advertising.
[Note: People sometimes offer the argument that sports pay for themselves, but athletic departments generate revenue in very few universities.]

Do these arguments apply to NESCAC type schools? To get a quick read on this question, I created a small dataset. The observations are NESCAC member schools plus Swarthmore, Carleton, and Pomona (the broader peers of Williams). I coded the 2000 endowment for each school, the number of hits I got in Google when I typed the school name, the US News & World Report 2004 Ranking, and the average Sears Cup performance over the past four years. [Note: Tufts is listed by US News as a University, so the ranking is not meaningful.] You can see the dataset by clicking the link here.
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In answer to the endowment question, there does not appear to be any systematic relationship between Sears Cup performance and endowment size. So, it is unlikely that Alumni give money to Williams based on the performance of sports teams.

However, one does find evidence that the US News Ranking and Endowment are correlated. I take this to mean that schools with large endowments can hire the quantity of faculty and build the lush campuses that do well in the ever changing US News formula. That is, large endowments cause high rankings. However, one shouldn’t be so quick to discount the converse. I bet alumni would rather see #1 in US News than a #1 in the Sears Cup despite the fact that the latter is an objective and the former is a subjective measure.

Well, what about advertising? Here the story is mixed. The best advertising for a liberal arts college is the US News ranking, but there is no relationship between the ranking and Sears Cup performance (which isn’t surprising since we already know the formula US News uses does not count sports victories). However, there does appear to be a little evidence that sports does serve as advertising when looking at the Google Hits. Williams and Amherst receive more hits than Swarthmore, Pomona, and Carleton who are comparably ranked schools. History and tradition play a role, but sports might be in the mix as well. Middlebury offers slight confirmation for this argument.

However, the two NESCAC schools with the largest number of Google hits are Tufts and Wesleyan. Both schools are Universities with graduate programs. Perhaps adding academic programs is a better way for a small college to generate press than winning the Sears Cup. Winning an obscure award may not generate the amount of press that a good graduate program can (which publishes papers, receives grants, holds symposiums, etc.). Of course, it could be that a graduate program simply generates web pages or fails to advertise to high school students.

I wouldn’t put any stock in a dataset of 14 schools, but the quick glance suggests that Division III schools do not gain much revenue or advertising from top flight sports teams.

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Tipped Off

If “tips” are students that would not have been accepted to Williams were it not for their athletic ability, we need a term for students who were accepted to Williams because of their academic ability but whose athletic experience at Williams was negatively impacted by the tip system. Perhaps “tip-offs” or “untips” or . . .

Whatever you call these individuals, Nate Foster ’01 was one:

I think you hit the nail on the head with your last blog post on tips.

I was a decent, though by no means outstanding, baseball player at my high school and captained the team my senior year. Many of my teammates went on to play at small colleges. So when I showed up at Williams, I thought I might be able to “walk on” to the baseball team, even though Barnard didn’t know anything about me. There were a few of first years (3-4?) in the same position.

Barnard ostensibly gave us a fair shot at making the team, but it soon became clear that in his mind, we were fighting for the last 1-2 spots on a 26-man Florida roster (it’s 32 now?). After a few months of training where it was clear that even if we did make the team, we would probably never play in our 4 years with the number of people who were being tipped/recruited, all of us quit.

I like to think that I could have played baseball at the DIII level. And I feel ashamed to have bailed out before finding out for sure if I could have made the team and/or played. But at the same time, like you, I wonder why we need to have a baseball team that dominates NESCAC when there are people who get into Williams without tips and with whom we could field a competitive baseball team. All of this about needing tips to keep the balance of culture at Williams and prevent us from becoming Swarthmore is total crap (and, given Sam Crane’s recent comments about the intellectual culture at Williams, becoming more like Swarthmore might not be a bad thing!) We could certainly field competitive (if not dominant) teams without using so many, if any, tips.

What he said.

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Cass on Tips

Oren Cass ’05 has lots of interesting things to say on the topics of tips. Just keep scrolling. Cass asks:

But why do we admit people who are good at sports? Wouldn’t it be better to let our brilliant “academic admits” fill up all those varsity rosters and benefit from the experiences? Absolutely… if that’s what they were good at.

I guess it all depends on what you mean by “good.” I don’t see Cass, or any other defender of tips, squarely confronting one of the most important — and immutable — aspects of athletics at Williams: there are only so many spots on a given team, there are only so many minutes of playing time to go around.

How would Cass feel about tips if he hadn’t made the baseball team, if all the wonderful experiences that he correctly ascribes to varsity athletics at Williams were not available to him?

There are people like that out there of course. Cass might even know their names. Baseball coach Dave Barnard certainly does. There are 32 spots on the baseball roster. What about the 33rd, 34th, and 35th best baseball players at Williams? Where are they now?

Answer: They didn’t make the team. They were cut. They, presumably, were not tips and got into Williams without reference to their speed on the bases. They don’t get to go to Florida with the team. They don’t get to play Amherst. They don’t get to talk about varsity athletics at their job interviews. They never wear the purple.

How would Cass feel if he were in their shoes? How does he explain to them — good high school baseball players who love the game and who would get as much out of the experience of playing for Dave Barnard as he does— that the tips policy makes sense?

I don’t think that he can.

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