In Monday’s issue of this paper, Jeremy Majerovitz presents a strong argument on the tradeoff between athletics and academics at Stanford. Mr. Majerovitz asserts that the price of athletics at Stanford largely goes unrecognized and calls on members of the Stanford community to engage in “a frank discussion of how much we are willing to sacrifice academics for athletic success.”
I would like to continue this discussion. Mr. Majerovitz makes a great point that there does exist a tradeoff in the decision for Stanford to maintain the nation’s most successful Division I athletics program. After all, money spent on sports could be spent elsewhere. In fact, at most schools this tradeoff does become too steep a price to pay, particularly when it comes to sacrificing ethical standards. Even highly regarded academic institutions such as Harvard have come under intense scrutiny for pivoting towards lower admissions standards and skirting with NCAA rules to recruit athletes.
Without a doubt, the NCAA collegiate athletics model bears deep flaws and can promote behavior that borders on raw exploitation. But Stanford really is a different story and a small beacon of light in a crumbling building that is the NCAA model. Stanford has embraced the power of athletics in adding to the diversity pervasive in a campus culture where striving for excellence is the modus operandi.
Universities talk about “diversity” these days so often that the term has become nothing more than a vacuous buzzword. Does it refer to racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity or something else entirely?
The common denominator in all of these examples of diversity — and the working definition that we should strive for — is diversity of experiences and talents. Stanford athletes are engaged within the university community beyond the playing field and provide a richer campus culture. Stanford should strive to admit the most talented students from across the world. Alongside outstanding mathematicians, mechanical engineers and musicians, top-notch athletes who desire to embrace the intellectual community add to this diversity of experiences and talent. The key to making sports at a university work is to avoid creating an environment where athletes are sequestered or put in a position where they cannot take advantage of the educational opportunities provided in college.
Stanford certainly succeeds in this regard when you consider basketball star Chasson Randle, the program’s all-time leader in minutes played, who will graduate this year with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while positioning himself for a professional basketball career.
Or consider the Stanford baseball team, which demands strong academic performance from its players, mandating that all team members be at least one quarter ahead in their degree progression by the end of their junior years. In fact, the baseball team rarely practices with the full roster on any given day due to various class commitments. There’s no question academics are a priority, and this is where Stanford gets it right over a lot of other schools.
Of course, I haven’t really addressed Mr. Majerovitz’s main points yet. Sure there are plenty of individual cases of Stanford athletes excelling in and out of the classroom, but does that justify investing so much in varsity and sports admitting students who might have lower test scores than the general student body and cannot devote as much time to their studies due to athletic commitments?
I’ll address the latter point first because it is particularly timely. In a recent interview, former Stanford football player Henry Anderson acknowledged that football was his primary focus while on the Farm. But is that such a bad thing? The Founding Grant of the University states, in part, that Stanford should “assist…in the advancement of knowledge and in the dissemination and practical application of the same.” If a football player, for example, wants to hone his skills to make it to the NFL while also receiving a quality liberal arts education, then Stanford has every right to support him in that goal.
This situation is no different from an editor at The Stanford Daily putting in over 40 hours a week to put out a paper every day or the band manager of the LSJUMB taking time off from school to fully commit to the job. Most learning at college comes outside of the classroom. Most students make some form of the tradeoff between academics and other activities. Why single out athletes in this regard? While a liberal arts education and academic inquiry is undoubtedly a central tenant of the University, Mr. Majerovitz ignores the educational opportunities at Stanford beyond the classroom in his argument.
There is no doubt that Stanford Athletics could save a lot of money by dropping down to a lower division of athletics, but there is a tremendous value in attracting the top athletes across the country who also happen to be good students. Stanford should strive for excellence in all respects. Sure there is a price in maintaining a Division I athletics program, but the benefits of an extremely talented, well-rounded student body should not be overlooked.
Finally, the question of preferences given to athletes in admissions is the most delicate and contentious issue to address. The bottom line, however, is that Stanford student-athletes have overwhelmingly proven that they can handle the academic workload of the university, with graduation rates over 90 percent.
Ultimately, Stanford student-athletes have proven that they can succeed on the Farm and afterwards and they add tremendously to the Stanford education experience. This fact is much better justification for admission than an SAT score. Just as I learn a lot from my classmate down the hall writing a book of poetry or my friend creating the next great web application, I learn a lot from student-athletes about excellence, working hard and being a Technician. This is why a diversity of experiences makes Stanford special.
Is the University making a tradeoff by placing an emphasis on athletics? Absolutely, but Stanford has always been about being more than a one-dimensional institution; it is about pushing the boundaries, about striving for excellence in all respects. Athletics fits right into this picture, providing a rich campus culture and educational experience fundamental to Stanford’s identity.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.