The secrets of Ivy League sports have supposedly been revealed in Chris Lincoln’s book, Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League. It is apparently a league in which coaches can’t trust each other, money is a big factor despite the absence of scholarships, athletic departments and admissions offices frequently clash over kids, and a “zero-sum game” exists between academics and athletics.
Though Lincoln did contact some Cornell coaches for his book, including men’s soccer coach Brian Scales and women”s lacrosse coach Jenny Graap ’86, he does not allow equal space to discuss every Ivy school. Lincoln’s hazy portrait of Cornell is one of a school lagging at the bottom of the Ivy League in academic ranking and in endowment, and one that enjoys a strong hockey tradition mainly due to its “proximity to Canada.”
To get a sharper picture of what the “Ivy collective” means to Cornell, coaches and staff were asked for their reaction to the claims set forth in Playing the Game.
The Money Game
According to Lincoln, “recruiting athletes to Princeton is arguably the easiest sell in the Ivy League,” due to that school’s enormous endowment and generous financial aid packages. He adds, “it’s hard to imagine a player saying, ‘No thanks, I’d rather take the $20,000 in student loans and go to Cornell.'” With that in mind, one might wonder how do we manage to recruit against Princeton at all, let alone ever beat them in anything.
“The Ivy League used to have a philosophy that no student should be asked to choose between Ivy institutions based on money,” said Graap.
Lincoln seems to agree. He explains how “overlap meetings” used to be held between schools, during which school officials would agree on a financial aid package to be offered to a particular athlete across the board. This subtle form of price fixing and collusion was eventually banned under anti-trust law, leaving each Ivy in the dark about what its counterparts were offering recruits. But, while Lincoln seems to think this puts under-funded Cornell at a disadvantage, the coaches don’t feel that way. For them, it’s usually as simple as asking a recruit what kind of package another school is offering.
“Most of the time Ivies match each other”s financial aid offers,” said men”s track coach Robert Johnson.
“If Harvard or Princeton or Yale was going to package a student with no loans, then Cornell would do everything they could to match that package,” said Graap. “For me, [the economic disparity] doesn’t even exist. It’s a non-factor.”
The Academics Game
The influential book The Game of Life, by William Bowen and Richard Shulman, comes under fire in Playing the Game for discounting the value of athletics at academic institutions. Many coaches around the league are upset with one legacy of the book, the Academic Index (A.I.), which is used to ensure that recruited Ivy athletes are generally representative of the rest of their school’s student body — at least in terms of standardized test scores and class rank. Cornell coaches are no exception in this regard.
“The Bowen book is stupid,” said Johnson. “It talked about how the GPA of athletes is lower. Well, they’re spending a lot of time doing something else. Since when did the point of college become to get the best grades? I honestly think that a lot of these athletes contribute more than, say, the person who never leaves the library. What is that person contributing to the university?”
The league’s A.I. banding system allows only a certain number of athletes to be admitted at different standard deviations from the average. This frustrates coaches who feel limited by the number of good students (read: mediocre athletes) they must take on.
“A lot of these kids that we have to recruit in the higher-end band aren”t good players,” said Dartmouth football coach John Lyons. “And we know it coming in, and we’re doing it because we need bodies.”
Cornell football coach Jim Knowles ’87 would disagree.
“I think there are good players in every band,” he said. “There are less kids in America in the higher bands so there”s going to be less football players there; that’s just the law of averages. But, you just have to work hard to find them.”
Women’s track coach Lou Duesing not only disagrees with the A.I. in principle, but has seen it fail in simple application.
“Schools can”t even agree on what band people are in,” he said. “We’ve brought forward people with a certain A.I., and other schools had them ten, fifteen points higher. It’s the same transcript and same test scores. But people are doing things with them that give different outcomes.”
Duesing would not be sad to see the A.I. abolished, saying, “I just cant believe the other schools are that hungry for winning that they’re gonna bring in people who are gonna flunk out.”
The Admissions Game
Brown men’s basketball coach Glenn Miller accuses Yale and Princeton of taking athletes at the bottom of the Academic Index, in addition to touching on Cornell.
“Cornell has a lot of different areas where they can hide those kids and protect those kids in different colleges,” he said.
Graap takes exception to this.
“That statement seems to go back twenty years, when they did potentially ‘hide’ kids in the Ag School or something like that,” she said. “The world has changed so much, it doesn’t seem to me that we have any easier avenue in one college versus another. So I find that offensive for modern day.”
Lincoln emphasizes the constant battle between admissions and athletics to find kids that they both like. This conflict appears either nonexistent at Cornell, or just something people are not willing to talk about.
“The athletic department and the admissions office work together to admit and matriculate the highest caliber athlete possible who fits the academic standards of the university,” said Susie Curtis Schneider, interim admissions liaison to the Athletic Department.
“Our school is different than every other Ivy League school so our admissions is going to be very different,” said Knowles. “I think our admissions people are doing everything they can within their system to allow athletics to recruit the way it needs to recruit.”
Not everyone sees it that way, though. Graap, who feels the strain of maintaining a national powerhouse lacrosse program without the benefit of scholarships, takes issue with certain aspects of admissions.
“Dartmouth is three thousand kids. Is every admitted kid an athlete? It seems like 20 percent of their students are athletes,” she said. “Here it’s 7 or 8 percent. Give us 10 percent! That’s what I don’t understand about Cornell. Why do our admissions insist upon making it harder for athletics than any of our Ivy peers? Are we getting accolades for this? We’re the lowest ranked Ivy in U.S. News and World Report, and we’re certainly not the winningest athletic program.”
According to Schneider, “each individual Ivy League school is given a number of student athletes whom they may matriculate in a four-year period. This number is based on the travel squad sizes of each team multiplied by a factor of 1.4. It has no relation to the size of the school, only the size of the athletic teams fielded by the school.”
The Recruiting Game
If one were to believe Chris Lincoln, a top student-athlete would find little reason to attend Cornell in the face of Harvard”s brand name or Princeton’s money. What he didn’t count on were coaches who strongly believe in the superiority of a Cornell education, and can convince their recruits of that.
“There’s that ‘My life’s taken care of because I’m at Harvard’ mentality,” said Johnson, a Princeton grad himself. “That attitude can really sort of poison a campus. You don’t find that at Cornell.”
“We don’t want to be Harvard, we want to beat Harvard,” said Knowles.
Archived article by Dan Schiff
Sun Staff Writer