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The price of athletics at Stanford

“It will cost Stanford Athletics almost $100 million to put Cardinal teams in competition this year.” So reads Stanford’s Student-Athlete Handbook, which goes on to explain that only “approximately one third comes from ticket sales and television rights revenue” – the net annual cost is thus around $67 million. Is this money well spent?

The question I want to focus on is not whether the athletics department spends its allocated budget efficiently, but rather whether the university should be giving athletics such a large budget at all. To put things in perspective, Stanford will spend $256 million this academic year on financial aid. If we reallocated the university’s net spending on athletics into financial aid, we could raise Stanford’s aid generosity by 25 percent. By spending so much on athletics, Stanford is passing up other opportunities.

Stanford’s commitment to athletics is reflected not just in its budget, but also in the composition of its student body. Out of its 7,000 undergraduates, about 900 are student-athletes and there are 300 athletic scholarships divided amongst this student-athlete population. But here again there is a tradeoff. For one, athletics is a serious time commitment.  The NCAA limits playing season practice to 20 hours a week, which teams tend to use in full. This inevitably detracts from the student-athlete’s academic commitments. As Richard Sherman put it at a recent press conference: “Show me how you’re going to get all your work done when after you get out at 7:30 or so, you’ve got a test the next day, you’re dead tired from practice and you still have to study just as hard as everybody else.” The more we emphasize athletics, the less time students have to spend on academics.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this trade-off is admissions standards for athletes. Many of my friends at Stanford with whom I have discussed athletic admissions are under the impression that academic standards for admission are essentially the same for athletes and non-athletes, even in high revenue sports like football. This impression is pushed by the athletics department. When Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter gave a presentation at Stanford claiming that universities were making academic concessions, including relaxed admissions standards, in order to have successful athletic programs, Stanford’s senior associate athletic director responded: “I beg to differ on that. We haven’t lowered our academic standards.” Football coach David Shaw has repeated this mantra: Responding to critics claiming that Stanford had relaxed its academic standards to achieve football success, he claimed, “We have the same academic standards.”

But this is not actually true. Although we do not have comprehensive statistics comparing athletic admits to regular admits, some data does exist. Looking at a group of 10 elite colleges and using SAT scores (on the 1600 point scale) as a proxy for academic ability, Princeton researchers found that being a recruited athlete gave an admissions boost equivalent to scoring 200 points higher on the SAT. We can also look at high school scouting reports for football players. Looking at the Stanford recruitment class of 2009 (this year was quite typical in terms of test scores), the median football player who reported scores got an 1800 out of 2400 on the SAT and 26 on the ACT. Based on university statistics, this puts the football median comfortably in the bottom quartile and likely somewhere in the bottom 10 percent in terms of test scores. Stanford football players are quite smart, but the data suggests they place near the bottom of Stanford’s admits.

There are, of course, various other perspectives and counterarguments. For example, some have argued that beyond providing physical conditioning, athletics teaches academic skills and attributes such as teamwork, endurance, leadership and time management. These skills may well be taught by athletics, but they are also taught by numerous other curricular and extracurricular activities. The difference between, say, a recruited wrestler and a high school debate team captain is that Stanford provides substantial additional resources and relaxed admissions standards for the former, even when the latter has done the more academically-oriented of the two activities. Although we could continue to debate the finer points, the evidence of a trade-off between athletics and academics appears, to me, overwhelming.

This is not an attack on athletes, nor is it a suggestion that all athletes are underqualified. In fact, my inspiration for this op-ed came from an article by John Urschel, who, aside from being an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, is also a published mathematician. Urschel suggests that football players, including those at Stanford, are letting their sport take precedence over their education.

Urschel’s argument is one part of my broader concern. At Stanford, there is a serious tradeoff between athletics and academics: a tradeoff that is under-recognized and goes largely undiscussed. Athletics is not mentioned as part of Stanford’s purpose in the Founding Grant, nor in the mission statements of any of the seven schools. Yet we are making substantial sacrifices for athletics, in terms of financial resources and spots in each entering class. I believe the fundamental question is how much we, as a university, value athletics for its own sake. If our actions are out of line with our values, then we need to change.

It’s time for us to consider whether Stanford’s policies of heavy investment in athletic programs and recruitment are really in line with the university’s mission. Regardless of what we decide to do, we as a university should have a frank discussion about how much we are willing to sacrifice academics for athletic success.

Jeremy Majerovitz ’15

Contact Jeremy Majerovitz at jmajic ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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