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CGCL VI: Report by the Athletics Committee

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:
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WOC gets badass

Posted by ’12 in an earlier thread, but I think it deserves front-page placement, because this makes me very, very proud of Williams:

There may be no donuts, no cider, and no singing, but there is still a Stony Ledge. And tomorrow is Mountain Day. And so it must be climbed.

THERE WILL NOT BE A SUNRISE. The weather will be miserable. Do not
come on this trek expecting a sunrise. You will almost certainly be
disappointed. If you have never been to Stony Ledge before, this is
probably not the time.

Meet at 6am *sharp* (if you think you’ll be late, this means get there
at 5:50) on Chapin steps. We will not wait. Bring a headlamp, a
backpack with a water bottle – fill it with hot water – and WARM
CLOTHES including rain gear. It will be in the 20s, windy, and
probably snowing on Stony Ledge. If you show up without appropriate
clothing, you won’t come.

Plan on arriving back on campus around 9:15am.

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