September 14, 2004

The Recruiting Game

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As the world of Division I athletic recruiting becomes more corrupt and shameless, those of us in the Ivy League often take solace in our commitment to the highest academic level. Whereas a Big 10 football player might be more paroled felon than student-athlete, those who don the uniforms of the Ancient Eight schools excel in both the classroom and on the field of play…right?

According to Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League by Chris Lincoln, the country”s most prestigious schools ‘adopt rules to enforce their “Ivy principles” only to find ways to bend, or break them, in some cases by conspiring with each other.’ The book paints a picture of an athletic conference living in the past, unable to reconcile the relationship between academics and athletics, especially in big revenue sports.

Lincoln first introduces us to the concept of the Academic Index, or A.I., to demonstrate how every Ivy League school ensures its athletes do not fall outside the academic range of the rest of its student population. The adherence by Ivy schools to the A.I. is purportedly a response to the lessons of The Game of Life, an influential book by former Princeton President William Bowen and Richard Shulman. The Game of Life, according to Lincoln, is a harsh attack against recruited college athletes who take the place of worthier applicants and then underperform in the classroom, a claim that Lincoln, a former college athlete himself, vehemently rejects. A simpler explanation for the A.I.”s existence comes from Dartmouth”s associate Athletic Director: ‘The A.I. came into play because the allegations were flying that Penn was taking dumb basketball players and Cornell was taking dumb hockey players.’

Lincoln spends most of his book interviewing athletic directors, coaches and athletes (a large proportion of who are, curiously, associated with Dartmouth, the school that rejected the author) largely supportive of his campaign against the restrictive A.I. Recruiters and coaches dislike the index because it incorporates SAT scores, GPA and class rank without considering leadership, motivation, socioeconomic background and other intangibles.

Admissions officers dislike the index because it allows coaches to push for (and usually get) an athlete”s admission to the school, as long as his or her A.I. falls within the acceptable average. One of the only A.I. supporters featured by Lincoln happens to be Cornell women”s lacrosse coach Jenny Graap “86. Graap, who experienced frequent academic failure while coaching at George Mason before returning to her alma mater, says she would rather embrace the academic standards than fight them because ‘it really protects us.’

Lincoln devotes a chapter to describing the endless recruiting challenges faced by Ivy League coaches. To get a player to commit, a coach at Cornell must, according to Lincoln, fend off Harvard (which, according to one source, uses its brand name to do ‘whatever the hell they want’ in terms of bending the recruiting rules), Princeton (whose endowment allows for the most attractive financial aid packages in the League), and all other urban schools (who presumably have the advantage over ‘isolated, frigid Ivy campuses’). In addition, the Ivy League”s refusal to use the NCAA”s Letter of Intent means that little more than a verbal commitment ties recruits to a school, which opens the door for shady dealings and last-second changes of heart. Though Lincoln obviously is not out to compare the merits of individual Ivy institutions, his focus on how the upper-tier schools operate might leave an uninitiated reader to wonder how Cornell could ever compete for recruits against other Ivies and prestigious scholarship programs.

Playing the Game explores sports at the Division III level as well, tracing the path of success that Trinity College has taken to achieve a number one ranking for its squash program, as well as examining the advantages of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). The NESCAC, considered by the author to be the Ivy League”s ‘academic and financial aid soul mate in collegiate sports,’ comprises eleven prestigious liberal arts colleges whose admissions standards rival those of the Ivies. Without scholarships or the pressure of competing against Division I scholarship programs, many NESCAC schools have enjoyed national success (including Williams in basketball), and their coaches spend considerably less time recruiting than their higher-profile Ivy counterparts. As a former NESCAC athlete himself (a soccer and hockey player at Middlebury College) it”s no surprise when Lincoln declares NESCAC athletics ‘a good deal saner and more balanced than in the Ivy League.’

Lincoln concludes Playing the Game with the suggestion that the Ivy League learn from top academic institutions that manage to succeed in sports, such as Michigan, Duke and Stanford: ‘stop being so conflicted about embracing excellence in the classroom as well as excellence on the athletic fields.’ (Conveniently, the author does not examine these ‘model’ schools in any detail.) Lincoln”s proposed reforms are communicated much more effectively through anecdotes (thanks to the A.I., Bill Bradley would likely have been rejected by every Ivy had he applied today) than through his own awkward interjections (‘Looking inside Ivy League recruiting is like examining an intricate tapestry on a cloudy day’). Unfortunately, the author seems to have little hope for the Ivy League, going so far as to title his final chapter ‘No End in Sight.’ Tales of exhausted coaches who must recruit year-round, recruits who deceptively play one school off the other, and the increasing difficulty of competing with scholarship schools are enough to make one question the purity of the Ivy League.

Archived article by Dan Schiff
Sun Staff Writer