Stanford and the Strained Alliance

The hot topic of not only this week, but of the entire last year, has been the impact at Stanford of Admissions on Athletics. At times the debate and discourse can become insular, so Warren Grimes today steps away to examine this issue in the context of the greater struggle between collegiate and professional sports in America.

Stanford and the Strained Alliance
Between Professional Sport and Higher Education

A recent newspaper story has highlighted the difficulties that Stanford has in recruiting top athletes.  As Stanford fans have long known, the difficulty lies not in finding athletes interested in attending Stanford, but in helping those recruits to gain admission.  Even in women's basketball, one of the most successful Stanford sports over the past two decades, coach Tara VanDerveer lamented that there are only a half dozen high school juniors who could help the team and be admitted.  That's a dismally small recruiting pool, even given Stanford's high yield rate among recruited athletes.  Still, for Stanford, the glass is surely more than half full.  Most rival coaches would love to be in Coach VanDerveer's shoes.

Stanford's difficulties are of course but a small piece in the greater puzzle involving higher education and its relationship with professional sport.  Let's go back to square one.

There is no inevitability about the connection between elite athletics and higher education.  Why should we require a young person aspiring to be a professional athlete to attend college?  True, a university education has many benefits, but there is no reason to require this, especially if a highly gifted athlete lacks the motivation or skills to do well in the classroom.  Indeed, when one looks beyond the United States, the rest of the world sees little connection between the elite athlete and university education.  Even in the United States, the professional sport that gained early prominence – that would be baseball – long relied on a farm club system to train its athletes.  How many of the famed baseball players of the Babe Ruth era had a college degree, or even went to college?

Of course, things are different now.  The NFL relies almost exclusively on college football as a farm system.  And, notwithstanding an increasing flow of foreign players, college basketball remains the primary proving ground for the NBA.  The same would be true for the WNBA.  And a high percentage of Major League Baseball players are former college baseball players.  The transformation of college athletics into a farm system for big money professional sport was possible because the United States has hundreds of colleges and junior colleges with widely varying admission standards, allowing almost any would-be-athlete to gain admission somewhere.

There are deeply unsettling aspects to this marriage between college athletics and big money professional sports.  Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan has reportedly turned down $3.5 million a year to coach in the NBA for a substantially greater sum.  Elite college football coaches can receive substantially more than Donovan turned down.  These sums are the norm in high stakes entertainment and professional sport.  Highly coveted high school athletes, or at least those in the big money sports, are pampered and courted (and not infrequently given rule-breaching payments) as colleges fall all over themselves to recruit in a market in which demand far exceeds supply.  Men's money sports (football and basketball) are run as businesses in a way that may seem alien to the university's central educational mission.  To many teachers, researchers, and deans who make the universities what they are, and do so for a fraction of the salary of the head football coach, this is anathema.  School administrators are often caught between the "sports-have-no-place-in-the-university" crowd and alumni and fans who believe that "winning is everything."

Despite all the complaints, college fans love their teams.  The NCAA and university administrators have reached a fairly stable, if occasionally uncomfortable, accommodation.  College sports, including big money sports, are here to stay.  To many of us, college sports are quite simply more fun than their professional counterparts, perhaps because fans get to see players grow into their roles, because relatively little money (a scholarship) is paid for a player's efforts, and because the business aspects of running college teams are muted in comparison to pro teams.

Max Starks: denied by Stanford, played four years at Florida and then won a Super Bowl ring

So where does Stanford fit in this picture?  Stanford has made compromises to try to win in the big money (and not-so-big-money) sports, but fewer than most.  Primarily, the Stanford approach has been one of recruiting and admitting exceptional athletes if they meet prescribed academic standards.  That's no different than other Division I-A schools, except that Stanford's academic standards and the accompanying application process are no doubt the most stringent among its competing class of schools.  The Ivy League schools have a somewhat less compromised position (they do not compete in Division I-A sports), but they too covet the gifted athlete and make admission allowances to this end.  I have assured my soon-to-be high school senior daughter that she can gain admission and a scholarship ride to any school in the country if she can just learn to dunk a basketball (alas, she's only 5'4" and possesses her father's stunning ability to leap over dominoes – if they're not too large).

Let's not forget all of the things Stanford has done well – so well in fact that we are the envy of most college coaches.  Stanford has had a lock on the Directors Cup for all-around athletic excellence for the past decade-plus.  That has come to pass primarily because Stanford has excelled in the non-money sports, and especially in women's sports, where after-college professional opportunities are sparse.  There are not too many professional cross-country runners.  And yes, a women's basketball player can have a post-graduate WNBA career, but the earnings are paltry compared to the big money men's sports.  So the controversy with Stanford athletics is most intense with respect to the high profile sports where Stanford has had the most difficulty winning consistently.

There has been substantial testimony from recently departed Stanford coaches that the academic bar has been raised to eliminate applicants who would have been admitted under earlier-applicable standards.  Perhaps some modest adjustments are in order.  The case for admitting gifted athletes whose grades and SAT scores do not equal the average for other admitted students is fairly simple.  Individuals who are motivated to make the most of their abilities, whether those abilities are in mathematics, music, or sport, should be favored in the admissions process.  That is surely the rationale applied by every university in the country.  The devil is in the detail.  At what level, for example should the minimum standards be set?  And once the minimum standards are met, how much weight should be given to relative performance within the acceptable range?

I think Stanford has got it about right.  Stanford has built a reputation of world renown and academic excellence over a century plus.  That reputation should not be put at risk by abrupt or dramatic compromise of academic standards.  Given these limitations, we may never achieve what the John Wooden-led UCLA Bruins achieved in an earlier era.  But the pursuit of excellence is multifaceted, and need not be myopically construed to bar attendance by motivated and gifted athletes whose academic credentials are in the acceptable range.

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